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Where Are All Them Civilian Surgers At?

Posted by Steve Hynd on May 28th, 2009

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Gareth Porter was recently interviewed by Real News Network about the implications of General Stanley McChrystal’s appointment as the senior military man in Afghanistan. He told Paul Jay that a civilian component to a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is now essentially empty talk.

I think it does send that message, basically, that all the talk about really new emphasis on a civilian element, a civilian component to a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is essentially empty talk in the sense that they don’t really know how to do it. They don’t have the means to do it. They don’t have people that are trained in Pashtun, the language of southern Afghanistan, where the ethnic group that basically inhabits the area where most of the Taliban gains have been made is located. They don’t really have the people that are trained in the language or who understand those people, who would work with them. And, therefore, this simply is not really going to happen. It’s not going to be an important component. And to name McChrystal as the next commander sends the message, it seems to me, that they have nothing left to fall back on except a military approach.

… I really believe that there is an element here of a war that somehow Obama imagined could be managed rationally. You could sort of pull this lever and, you know, adjust things in a fine-tuning manner, and it really doesn’t work that way. Once you decide to go in with a larger troop contingent, you commit yourself to a bigger war militarily. It eats up everything else. That’s the lesson of Iraq; that’s the lesson of Vietnam; that’s the reality every time you commit yourself to a military approach to something. Everything else really tends to go out the window, and you cannot manage the conflict. You are a prisoner of the military approach that you get committed to, and I think that’s the problem that Obama faces. Once he took that first step, he finds that he can’t fine-tune.

During the presidential campaign, Obama had said that “lasting security will only come if we heed Marshall’s lesson, and help Afghans grow their economy from the bottom up”. Yet funds for reconstruction comprise only a fraction of the billions being spent on military occupation – and even then, corruption, lack of management and the tendency to contract with US companies mean that the money goes largely to waste. The promised “civilian surge” seems to be a myth too. Rather than an army of wingtips on the ground, there are to be only a few hundred civilian experts deployed, a drop in the military’s 100,000 troop ocean. Those civilians will mostly be reservists too.

So we have a situation where the military has control of reconstruction funding – and is doing piss poorly at it – while people with previous military experience will be slotted in to that military framework as “civilian” experts. They could surely be forgiven for reverting to military thinking in such a case. As I’ve argued in the past, Petraeus and the COINdinistas have now engineered a situation where the DoD has the monopoly on all the practical tools of nation-building, whether they involve combat or not. You end up with only a military hammer because only they have the standing capability and infrastructure to do these non-military COIN tasks.

Yet these non-military or “non-kinetic” tasks are always going to take a back seat to what the military “knows best” and to military notions of what it needs to do. The concept of winning hearts and minds keeps hitting up against an institutional aversion to U.S. combat deaths in the form of devastating airstrikes on civilians; the notion of targeting terrorists through better intelligence hits up against unchecked $5,000 bounty payments, indefinite detention and torture for the crime of “walking while Moslem”; and reconstruction efforts hit up against rampant corruption, bribery of even military officers and an institutional aversion to detailling soldiers as oversight beancounters. That’s why the replacement of McKiernan by McChrystal is so worrying to some. The former was getting it, if slowly – the latter is a headhunter.

The trouble with COIN is that it is “whole war” theory – if one bit doesn’t work, you as often as not might as well not have bothered. Keeping it all in what is effectively the military’s hands guarantees, via military group-think, that the “people-centric” bits won’t work properly, if at all.

(Also on News Hoggers)

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