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General McChrystal's New Way of War

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
June 17, 2009
Wall Street Journal


Gen. Stanley McChrystal was appointed commander in Afghanistan to shake up a troubled war effort. But one of his first initiatives could wind up changing how the entire military does business.

Gen. McChrystal's decision to set up a Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell means creating a corps of roughly 400 officers who will spend years focused on Afghanistan, shuttling in and out of the country and working on those issues even while they are stateside.

Today, units typically spend six to 12 months in a war zone, and officers typically spend only a couple years in command before getting a new assignment. This undermines the continuity needed to prevail in complex environments like Afghanistan or Iraq. Too often, just when soldiers figure out what's going on they are shipped back home and neophytes arrive to take their place. Units suffer a disproportionate share of casualties when they first arrive because they don't have a grip on local conditions.

There was a saying that we didn't fight in Vietnam for 10 years; we fought there for one year, 10 times. The North Vietnamese, on the other hand, continued fighting until they were killed or immobilized. That gave their forces a huge advantage.

In Vietnam, units already in the field would get individual replacements from home, thus making it hard to maintain unit cohesion. Sometimes new soldiers were killed before anyone even knew their names.

The policy now is unit rotation -- an entire battalion or brigade (or a higher-level staff) trains together, deploys together, and leaves together. That makes for better cohesion, but makes it even harder to maintain continuity because there is little overlap between units.

In a tribal society like Afghanistan's, the key to effectiveness is having personal relationships with tribal elders, which argues for keeping troops in place much longer than currently is the case. But there are limits to the stress that soldiers can endure -- effectiveness degrades severely for anyone who spends too long in combat. And in an all-volunteer military, there is always the danger that if troops are forced to be away from their families too long they might not sign up for another hitch.

The U.S. Special Operations Command (the military command for all special operations units) has responded by creating a deployment cycle whereby units spend roughly six months deployed in a war zone and six months at home, keeping tabs on their area of operations while they're away and returning to the same area time after time. This arrangement, which has been in use for several years, allows personal relationships to be cultivated and continued while still giving troops some downtime.

It's an intriguing approach, and one that Gen. McChrystal, a veteran of special operations, is now migrating to the conventional military world. The new Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell is an attempt to strike a balance between personnel needs and war-fighting needs, and it is a move in the right direction.

I would argue for going even further by extending staff deployments (which aren't as stressful as combat jobs). Volunteers should be allowed to spend years at a time in places like Afghanistan -- not only soldiers but also diplomats and intelligence officers.

Who would volunteer to live in such an inhospitable environment? Well Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter, has been living and working in Kandahar since 2001. While in Afghanistan recently, I also met a former Special Forces soldier, now working as a State Department counter-narcotics contractor, who said he has been in Afghanistan for four years. Such people are invaluable for their knowledge of the local landscape.

The British, from whose glory days we can still learn many lessons, recognized this. Gertrude Bell, Richard Francis Burton, T.E. Lawrence and numerous others made an outsize contribution to their empire by "going native." They may have been sneered at by typical army officers, who were primarily interested in polo, whist and gin, but the knowledge they acquired proved invaluable.

Consider the case of Col. Sir Robert Warburton, a 19th century artillery officer who was the offspring of a marriage between a British officer and an Afghan princess. He spent nearly 30 years on the Northwest Frontier of India working as a political officer, negotiating with tribesmen who were (and are) suspicious of all outsiders.

"It took me years to get through this thick crust of mistrust, but what was the after-result?" he wrote in his memoirs. "For upwards of fifteen years I went unarmed amongst these people. My camp, wherever it happened to be pitched, was always guarded and protected by them. The deadliest enemies of the Khyber Range, with a long record of blood-feuds, dropped those feuds for the time being when in my camp."

Warburton retired in May 1897. Within months the frontier was aflame with a great uprising that took tens of thousands of troops to suppress. (You can read all about it in Winston Churchill's first book, "The Story of the Malakand Field Force," which contains eerie echoes of current fighting on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.) Warburton, who had been known as the "King of the Khyber," was convinced that if he were still on the job, the contacts he had cultivated would have allowed him to prevent the uprising. He may well have been right.

What Gen. McChrystal realizes, in effect, is that we need to create our own Robert Warburtons. If his experiment succeeds, future commanders can build on the precedent to provide the kind of cultural and linguistic skills that we will need to win the long war against Islamic extremists.

Mr. Boot is a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is currently writing a history of guerrilla warfare.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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