Via Feral Jundi, ISAF released this video yesterday in which Gen. McChrystal explains eight of his guiding principles in counterinsurgency, much of which will be familiar to observers of the Afghanistan debate. In the spirit of McChrystal’s “imperative” that the force recognized it will be judged “every minute of every day” by what it does, it’s fair to put some of this in the context of Kandahar. McChrystal’s getting hit for switching up his plan to secure the city. So it feels like a response when he says that his responsibilities include “listen[ing] closely” to Afghans and “adapt[ing] constantly.”

Another point. McChrystal devotes considerable attention to the twin imperatives of speaking clearly with “one voice” and possessing the “moral courage” necessary to act in a manner that credibly convinces Afghans that NATO and the Afghan government protect their interests. So to be blunt: you can’t wage a values-driven counterinsurgency in southern Afghanistan, where the coalition has the bulk of its resources and focuses the bulk of its strategy, and a civilian-casualties heavy counterterrorist manhunt in eastern Afghanistan. If you look at where most of the reported night raids and UAV strikes have occurred — and while I never got around to publishing this, we crunched the numbers at the Washington Independent– they’re in the east, where it looks like the “high intensity” Task Force 714 is the answer to a lack of NATO persistent presence. How can you expect Pashtun Afghans in the south to believe the coalition is out to protect them from violence when Pashtun Afghans in the east see men wearing the same uniforms operating with different standards?

For years, there has existed bifurcation in the chains of command between regular forces and special forces in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. McChrystal, a former JSOC commander, understands the deleterious implications of that split better than most commanders, which is why he immediately attempted consolidating control of Special Operations assets in August 2009 and bolstered that effort in the spring. But that control is not complete, and my understanding is there are statutory limitations to how much control he can possess. Top-level administration officials and congressional leaders need to place real scrutiny to this command split and ask if it’s an obstacle to the strategy in Afghanistan (and beyond).

There is a new commander coming into RC-East, Maj. Gen. John Campbell of the 101st Airborne, who I understand will endeavor to implement a counterinsurgency strategy in an environment of distributed and diffuse population centers and with significantly fewer troops and top-level attention than in the south. He will face the additional challenge of how to interact — or direct? — SOF assets in his area of responsibility as well. All previous Afghanistan war commanders considered RC-East central to war strategy; now it is peripheral. But that doesn’t mean that Campbell won’t be watched and judged by the Afghan civilians in the east, as McChrystal put it, every minute of every day.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman