McChrystal and the COINhatas

Amid all the chatter about whether Stan McChrystal should keep his job, one storyline in the Rolling Stone article is getting lost: the doubts many U.S. soldiers have about counterinsurgency doctrine:

[H]owever strategic they may be, McChrystal's new marching orders have caused an intense backlash among his own troops. Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. "Bottom line?" says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers' lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing." 

Michael Hastings, the author, is clearly a skeptic -- a COINhata, if you will. He does little to present McChrystal's side of the argument, or any evidence that his strategy could be working. Admittedly, there isn't much evidence at this point. CFR's Stephen Biddle made a smart comment about this last week:

We're at one of those moments where it's very hard to tell whether things are going well or badly. Counterinsurgency always has this "darkest before the dawn" quality.  When you start with a tough situation, you introduce reinforcements and you begin to contest insurgent control of population areas they now control, violence then rises. Enemy causalities go up, causalities to your own forces rise, casualties to civilians increase, general mayhem rises. If you succeed, you gain political control of these populations and violence eventually comes down. From an early increase in violence, you can't deduce that you're winning or that you're losing because you would see exactly the same thing either way at this point in the war.

That was true enough in Iraq; the surge looked to many like it wasn't working well into the summer of 2007. But I wonder if Afghanistan is really a comparable situation. It's a much more fragmented country, where trends in one area don't necessarily spill over into other places. Tribal leaders don't have the same ability to bring their communities along, especially as years of war and Taliban rule have undermined the authority of tribal elders. So it's hard to imagine the same kind of "awakening" spreading rapidly across the country. This is going to be a slog, valley by valley, village by village.

The thing is, though, it's not as if there is a viable alternative strategy out there. For years, the U.S. more or less tried Vice President Joe Biden's preferred approach of keeping a light footprint and limiting U.S. military operations to going after bad guys, while de-emphasizing nation building. That didn't work either. So I think it's worth giving COIN more time to succeed, whether or not McChrystal is the man implementing it.

Which raises another question about the general's leadership in Afghanistan. As any COIN expert will tell you, theory is one thing; implementation is quite another. What made General Petraeus so effective in Iraq was that he was brilliant at operationalizing COIN concepts and ensuring that everyone down the chain of command was carrying them out properly. Is McChrystal doing that effectively? I have my doubts. He certainly isn't following the COIN dictum that "unity of effort" is paramount -- he and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, can't seem to get along; nor can Eikenberry get along with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. If winning a counterinsurgency war is mainly a political effort, what does it tell you if the politics guy isn't even in the game?


Can the Turkish opposition kick out Erdogan?

A few months back, I had a pleasant lunch at a Turkish restaurant in Dupont Circle with representatives of a nascent Turkish political party, TDH. The party billed itself as a Western-oriented alternative to the ruling AKP party -- and also as more dynamic and forward-looking than the CHP, the opposition party that has been the traditional home of secular Turks. It turned out to be a short-lived venture: Today, party leader Mustafa Sarigul announced that he was abandoning his plans to establish TDH as an independent political party, and would throw his support behind the CHP is Turkey's 2011 general election.

Sarigul suggested that international and domestic developments -- a reference to Prime Minister Erdogan's vociferous criticism of Israel in the wake of the Gaza flotilla disaster and the recent flare-up of Turkish-Kurdish tensions -- were the reason TDH leaders had to "act as statesmen and unite" with opposition groups. The real reason, however, probably has more to do with changes in the CHP, and within Turkey's political climate. After the resignation of CHP leader Deniz Baykal following a sex scandal, his replacement, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has mended bridges with Baykal's old rivals -- including Sarigul.

Just as importantly, the Turkish opposition seems to have gained new life. Two recent polls found that the CHP was polling at its highest level in years, now receiving the support of approximately 30 percent of Turks. There are a variety of possible reasons for this improvement in the party's fortunes: the new leadership of Kilicdaroglu, Turkish anger that the AKP's much-celebrated "Kurdish opening" failed to achieve results, discontent over Erdogan's Middle East adventurism, and double-digit unemployment in a job market that still has not turned the corner following the international recession. Whatever the reason for the CHP's revival, its newfound strength makes it unlikely that there would be political space for a nascent party such as TDH to establish a foothold.

The 2011 election is still a year away -- a lifetime in politics. But it looks like the Turkish opposition is going to enter campaign season unified and energized in a way that must have Erdogan sweating.