McChrystal's Mistake: Too Much COIN

06/25/2010 02:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I'm a bit late to the pundit party, but I have a few thoughts about "The Runaway General" controversy that have been overlooked. General McChrystal crossed a line, and left the President with no choice but to relieve him of his command. This much is sure. It is a huge story, one which will reverberate in the coming months and years across Afghanistan, as my colleague Jeremy as already noticed.

However, we have focused solely on the derogatory comments sprinkled throughout the article, and in doing so have missed the bigger point: COIN is not working in Afghanistan, and General McChrystal was oblivious to its failings. Unfortunately, President Obama and his national security team seem similarly blinded, as the selection of General Petraeus indicates more of the same COIN-predicated strategy.

Ironically, criticizing the COIN orthodoxy has become near-heresy in many circles, a far cry from its wandering in the desert days in pre-surge Iraq. The rapid growth, and indeed dominance, of this theoretical paradigm is not inherently negative, but falling in thrall to the theory and neglecting to think critically and reflect on the situation in Afghanistan and the applicability of COIN theory is a fatal flaw. General McChrystal and his team fell victim to true-believer blindness, and U.S. and NATO troops, and Afghan civilians, will pay the price long into the future.

One of the fundamental prerequisite for COIN is the existence of a viable alternative to insurgency. This entails a functioning state, economic opportunity, and basic governance structures, such as police, utilities management, and the like. As Vali Nasr has observed, the party that gets the most support is the one that collects the garbage. These standards are not high; transforming Kabul into Geneva is not necessary. But Hamid Karzai's government has failed to meet even these basic standards, and in fact has exacerbated the difficulties with rampant corruption and fraud. Karzai blatantly stole the last election, enriches himself and his kin at the expense of the populace, and does so in full public view. General McChrystal and his team recognized the shortcomings of President Karzai, complaining "he's been locked up in the palace the past year," yet were unable or unwilling to follow this thought to its logical conclusion: Karzai's regime undermines COIN.

In fact, McChrystal's staff were apparently so in thrall to the power of COIN that they spoke of it as a complicated, almost mythical process, one which only they had mastered and were therefore above reproach. Speaking of Ambassador Holbrooke, one of McChrystal's advisers said "He's a brilliant guy, but he just comes in, pulls on a lever, whatever he can grasp. But this is COIN, and you can't just have someone yanking on shit." Ambassador Holbrooke has a reputation as a prickly individual, and it's no surprise to hear him criticized. Yet the nature of this criticism is that Holbooke was messing with COIN, something he clearly did not understand as well as McChrystal's people. COIN in this conception is the only solution, and this reverence for doctrine, the belief that COIN is the The Answer, the only answer, and that they were the only ones able to lead the way, is shocking.

Yet despite, or perhaps because, of their true believer status, McChrystal and his team were unable to recognize how COIN was failing in Afghanistan and the problems in their position. When Ambassador Eikenberry wrote a classified cable critiquing U.S. strategy, McChrystal's reaction was one of betrayal and anger, not introspection. Instead of examining the argument, Eikenberry was criticized among McChrystal's team and his intellectual positions summarily dismissed without serious contemplation. Eikenberry's prescient predictions and concerns ran counter to McChrystal's faith in COIN, and were therefore without merit.

There was tension even in his own policies. McChrystal lectured troops at Combat Outpost JFM about "insurgent math," yet told other operators "you better be out there hitting four or five targets tonight." This disconnect, between the seriousness of protecting the population and avoiding civilian casualties yet supporting robust Special Forces raids, which often resulted in Afghan deaths, is a troubling use of COIN fundamentals. It's either a willful disregarding of principles at random, or a blindness to the inherent contradictions of a misapplied doctrine to an ill-fitting environment.

General McChrystal was ultimately done in by his lack of discretion, but the war effort in Afghanistan will eventually be a failure because of the over-reliance and misapplication of COIN. For the sake of all involved I hope that General Petraeus is wise enough to recognize the shortcomings of McChrystal's approach, but I fear that he, with the full support of the President and most of his national security team, will continue to fine-tune an instrument which has no business being used in Afghanistan while marching towards an ignominious end.

This post originally appeared on Demagogues and Dictators