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McChrystal's Tactical Directive for Afghanistan

NATO has released portions of the new tactical directive from Gen. McChrystal and his team. (h/t Mudville)  This change in policy has been controversial because it does place dangerous restrictions on the ability of our troops to hit the enemy in certain locations and situations, but it is necessary if we want to change the dynamic of that fight. The document is the outline for how coalition forces will operate in a manner consistent with both safeguarding the populace and engaging the enemy, a tightrope walk for certain. The portions released are unclassified and I will limit my commentary to these. I think that still provides a good look at the implications of this change without openly discussing how particular escalations of force would play out on the ground. Overall this directive shows why Gen. McChrystal replaced McKiernan, he articulates a population-based plan that can succeed given enough time and the support required.

Our strategic goal is to defeat the insurgency threatening the stability of Afghanistan. Like any insurgency, there is a struggle for the support and will of the population. Gaining and maintaining that support must be our overriding operational imperative - and the ultimate objective of every action we take.

We must fight the insurgents, and will use the tools at our disposal to both defeat the enemy and protect our forces. But we will not win based on the number of Taliban we kill, but instead on our ability to separate insurgents from the center of gravity - the people. That means we must respect and protect the population from coercion and violence - and operate in a manner which will win their support.

This opening properly frames the situation we face. We have fought in Afghanistan for far too long with far too little regard for building and maintaining relationships with the many tribal and sectarian leaders and populace. There have been instances where rapport has been built and trust gained, but our rotation policies and focus on kinetic operations have eventually overcome those small victories.

This is different from conventional combat, and how we operate will determine the outcome more than traditional measures, like capture of terrain or attrition of enemy forces. We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories - but suffering strategic defeats - by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people.

When we were asking the Commander of 1st Ranger Batt, LTC Brian Mennes, questions during a journalism seminar he conveyed a decision he made while deployed with the 82nd ABN. He would no longer conduct tactical strikes against residential dwellings even when under fire by known enemy from them. This statement pre-dated McChrystal's announcement of this as a policy by many months. He came to this conclusion after seeing the damage done to his relationships with tribal leaders in his A/O and how this affected their cooperation and his unit's ability to gather intel and operate effectively.

While this is also a legal and a moral issue, it is an overarching operational issue - clear-eyed recognition that loss of popular support will be decisive to either side in this struggle. The Taliban cannot militarily defeat us - but we can defeat ourselves.

Accepting this this was vital to formulating a plan that leads to strategic rather than just tactical victory.

I recognize that the carefully controlled and disciplined employment of force entails risks to our troops - and we must work to mitigate that risk wherever possible. But excessive use of force resulting in an alienated population will produce far greater risks. We must understand this reality at every level in our force.

I expect leaders at all levels to scrutinize and limit the use of force like close air support (CAS) against residential compounds and other locations likely to produce civilian casualties in accordance with this guidance. Commanders must weigh the gain of using CAS against the cost of civilian casualties, which in the long run make mission success more difficult and turn the Afghan people against us.

It is much simpler and safer to call in an airstrike or artillery to take out a target you know has enemy fighters in it. It takes patience and an ability to look beyond a single engagement and the clear and present danger you face to withdraw and pursue other avenues against those fighters. We should actively be expanded our quiver of tactics in such a situation. A cordon/surveillance is one technique, drones can augment this, even non-lethal munitions will play a part. And hardest of all for a fighting force of warriors, sometimes we will just walk away and fight the same guys another day. Infuriating, yes but necessary to a long war strategy.

I cannot prescribe the appropriate use of force for every condition that a complex battlefield will produce, so I expect our force to internalize and operate in accordance with my intent. Following this intent requires a cultural shift within our forces - and complete understanding at every level - down to the most junior soldiers. I expect leaders to ensure this is clearly communicated and continually reinforced.

The concept of Commander's Intent is what makes the US military the best in the world. Rigid,hierarchical command structures pervade most militaries, but only in the US forces does the concept of the Strategic Corporal thrive. Leaders at every level are not just given orders and a flow chart to follow as the situation unfolds. Murphy 101 says that no plan survives first contact, Commander's Intent allows subordinate leaders the flexibility to act in ways not directly ordered, but supportive of the overall goal.

The use of air-to-ground munitions and indirect fires against residential compounds is only authorized under very limited and prescribed conditions (specific conditions deleted due to operational security).

(NOTE) This directive does not prevent commanders from protecting the lives of their men and women as a matter of self-defense where it is determined no other options (specific options deleted due to operational security) are available to effectively counter the threat.

Right there is an example of creating a framework in which our escalations of force first account for the safety of the people, but do not hamstring a leader's ability to save the lives of our troops. Does it by nature expose our people to a higher level of danger? Of course, but if we demonstrate our concern for the lives of the locals, we will win their trust. With their trust comes information and assistance. Afghanistan may be as good an example of the need for local knowledge as anywhere on Earth. Knowledge of the terrain and how to move around on it, of the composition of the populace and their alliances, feuds and always shifting loyalties are essential to acting intelligently and strategically. These peoples have beefs hundreds of years old and we need to understand that a few mea culpas and some cash is not going to erase the debt racked up by killing their relatives.

We will not isolate the population from us through our daily conduct or execution of combat operations. Therefore:

Any entry into an Afghan house should always be accomplished by Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), with the support of local authorities, and account for the unique cultural sensitivities toward local women.

No ISAF forces will enter or fire upon, or fire into a mosque or any religious or historical site except in self-defense. All searches and entries for any other reason will be conducted by ANSF.

Does this mean that the enemy will now hide in houses and mosques since we have announced we will not take them out directly when they do? Of course it does and that presents additional dangers and challenges. So be it. Again that means we adapt new tactics to waiting them out, ambushing their escape/exfil routes and spend plenty of time sitting on rocks watching nothing happen waiting for their friends to show up and try to resupply them or them to leave and give us a shot at them. Will that suck? Of course, embrace it and understand that proper application of these tactics as part of a population-centric strategy can actually yield allies. That is more valuable than a stack of dead tangos. It is a vital step to denying the enemy sanctuary and cover among the people.

The challenges in Afghanistan are complex and interrelated, and counterinsurgencies are difficult to win. Nevertheless, we will win this war. I have every confidence in the dedication and competence of the members of our force to operate effectively within this challenging environment. Working together with our Afghan partners, we can overcome the enemy's influence and give the Afghan people what they deserve: a country at peace for the first time in three decades, foundations of good governance, and economic development.

Will this lead to a modern Shangri La in the Hindu Kush? Of course not, but it may lead to a security environment where the majority of Afghans get back to trying to scratch out a living in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Where they cease to be pawns in a game between religious fanatics most of them don't want anything to do with, and armored crusaders from across a sea they have never seen determined to exterminate the religionists.

This directive and my analysis of it completely ignore the un-ignorable problem of Pakistan. One step at a time. If the Afghan piece of this puzzle can be hammered and plowshared into some semblance of peacefullness, we can turn our attention to the other side, arguably a tougher nut to crack. The Pakistanis have already begun to complain that our operations in Afghanistan have sent the "tough guys" we fight cutting and running back across the border. That will have to be dealt with, but the first step is obviously running them out and then making sure the conditions do not allow their re-infiltration. One step at a time.