Tom note: Here is the sixth entry in our 10 Long March posts for 2018, the 5th most-read item of the year, which originally ran on June 11, 2018. These posts are selected based on what’s called ‘total engaged minutes’ (the total number of time spent reading and commenting on an article) rather than page views, which the T&P; editors see as a better reflection of Long March reader interest and community. Thanks to all of you for reading, and for commenting–which is an important part of this column.
It was near the end of the evening commander’s update briefing on 6 June 2010, and her audience included dozens of staff officers in various combat uniforms. Hundreds more joined via videoconference from the regional commands in Afghanistan and NATO bases around the world. ISAF commander General Stanley McChrystal sat solemn-faced at the hub of a U-shaped array of plywood tabletops arranged to give him eye contact with his closest advisors. The woman called up the first slide of her presentation: the impact of civilian casualties on insurgent violence across Afghanistan. Many in the audience were skeptical. What could a young academic with no operational or field experience tell them about civilian casualties — a challenging and sensitive topic — that they didn’t already know? In a crisp, professional tone she presented the key finding: On average, civilian deaths caused by ISAF units led to increased attacks directed against ISAF for a period that persisted fourteen weeks after each incident.
“Despite the claims of some, counterinsurgency is no more dead than is conflict. Students of the latter continue to learn, adapting lessons from post-World War II, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.”
Ten years ago next month, the U.S. military changed tack in a messy Iraq occupation, launching what’s simply known as “the surge.” Today, experts are still fighting over it. Even among those who credit Gen. David Petraeus and his counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy with turning the Iraq War around, there arecompeting theories on why it worked. Some have argued forcefully that it wasn’t the surplus of American troops or shift in tactics that put an end to the sectarian war that rocked Iraq in the months leading up to the surge, but rather that the war had simply bled itself out by the time we decided to get involved. Those who say it didn’t work at all can point to the subsequent rise of ISIS — whose leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was reportedly radicalized while being held in a U.S. detention facility — and the fact that Baghdad is now firmly underIranian control; here, they argue, is proof that the surge did little more than allow the U.S. to leave Iraq with its dignity intact.
With the White House mulling a new troop surge in Afghanistan, “War Machine,” a dark comedy about the last time we tried this, is exactly what we need right now. On the surface, the feature-length film from writer-director David Michôd — streaming on Netflix starting today — is an examination of post-colonial hubris. Brad Pitt stars as an eerily familiar four-star general tasked with doing what no other foreign military leader could: winning in the storied Southwest Asian graveyard of empires.