War Stories

What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us

The scariest thing Gen. McChrystal told Congress about Afghanistan.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal

At an otherwise uneventful hearing before the House Armed Services Committee this morning, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said something that should confirm and heighten most people’s apprehensions about the war’s escalation.

McChrystal noted that he has accumulated several years of command experience in that country since the war began. And yet, he confessed, “There is much in Afghanistan that I do not understand.”

None of the legislators audibly gasped, or asked any questions about this remark, but they should have.

In most conventional wars, it doesn’t much matter whether commanders or their subordinates have a deep feel for the psychology or culture of the people who live on or near the battlefield. However, in a counterinsurgency war, this sort of knowledge is essential.

As Gen. David Petraeus put it in his celebrated field manual on counterinsurgency (often abbreviated as COIN):

Successful conduct of COIN operations depends on thoroughly understanding the society and culture within which they are being conducted.

The manual then lists a few things that the soldiers and Marines who wage this sort of war “must understand”—including “Organization of key groups in the society”; “Relationships and tensions among groups”; “Ideologies and narratives that resonate with groups”; “Values of groups (including tribes), interests, and motivations”; “Means by which groups (including tribes) communicate”; and “The society’s leadership system.”

In other words, as the manual declares on Page 27, “Cultural knowledge is essential to waging a successful counterinsurgency.”

McChrystal understands the central importance of this dimension. He and Petraeus (who is now U.S. commander of the entire region) have talked a great deal about exploiting divisions within the Taliban, splitting off its nonideological factions from the fundamentalists, and luring local or tribal leaders to join us in battling the insurgents.

But McChrystal’s remark at this morning’s hearing raises a vital question about our political and military leaders: How much do they really understand about what they know they must understand?

In fairness, they may know as much as Americans can know (or, at least, they’ve hired some of the leading experts on Afghan politics as consultants or staff). And they will learn more as U.S. forces secure more Afghan territory and engage more directly with more tribal leaders.

But do they, will they ever, know enough? And does greater knowledge necessarily boost the chances of success? (It’s possible, for instance, that the more they know about Afghan society, the more they’ll realize the place is intractable.)

This uncertainty—more to the point, the awareness of this uncertainty—may account for the tentativeness of the U.S. commitment, specifically for President Barack Obama’s announcement last week that, on the one hand, he was ordering 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan, but, on the other hand, he would begin to pull them out in 18 months.

True, the key word in that part of the message is begin. As many of Obama’s senior aides spelled out in the wake of his Dec. 1 speech at West Point, we will merely begin to pull out some troops in July 2011; the pace and end point of that withdrawal will be determined by “conditions on the ground.”

Still, the reason for mentioning such a date at all is to send a signal—to the Afghan and Pakistani governments, as well as to the American people—that our commitment is not “open-ended” and that the “conditions” we’ll be observing are political as well as military.

U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who testified along with McChrystal at today’s hearings, hinted at an elaboration of this point. In his opening statement, he said that “despite everything we do,” the Afghan government might have a hard time assuming its governing responsibilities. He also said that we will fall “far short of our strategic goals” if Pakistan continues to provide sanctuary for Taliban fighters across the border.

To put the matter more bluntly: Afghan President Hamid Karzai may prove unable or unwilling to reform his corrupt ways; the Pakistanis may prove unable or unwilling to commit enough troops to battle the Taliban in the northwestern territories; and if either of those scenarios comes true, our counterinsurgency campaign—no matter how brilliantly planned and executed—cannot succeed.

Hence the 18-month deadline, hinge, transition point—call it what you will. Several top officials—McChrystal, Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—have testified in recent days that, by the start of 2011, we will have a very good idea of how the war is going and whether we can win.

They didn’t say so explicitly, but I assume that this forecast refers to the success of not just the war’s military dimension—which is the easiest to manage—but also its more vital political dimension: whether Karzai is reforming, whether the Pakistanis are cooperating, whether we are getting better at understanding (and, as a result, more agile at playing the politics of) Afghanistan.

If Obama and his advisers conclude that things aren’t going well enough on these scores to offer much hope for success, July 2011 will—or should—be a time to scale back drastically our already-modest ambitions and to do more than merely “begin” to pull out.