Nobody wins when everyone's losing. (updated)

Thursday, September 24, 2009
General (that's one-two-three-four stars) Stanley McChrystal has caught a lot of hell this week over a report he sent to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates requesting a boost in the number of troops assisting in Afghanistan. (unclassified report here) By the language he uses, referencing previous denied requests for troops, I am suspecting he is going to be asking for something in the vicinity of thousands. Like perhaps 10,000+ new troops for Afghanistan.

After my quick read of the report, I've been able to figure out that Gen. McChrystal thinks we are not doing so hot at fighting the insurgency because: (1)we are failing to snuggle up to the people and make them get used to us and like us the way an insurgency is supposed to be "fought", (2) we're not keeping Afghanistan's leadership honest and corruption-free, and (3) we are not managing the prisons and detention camps appropriately, so that they've basically become collectives for new insurgents.

General Stanley McChrystal would like you to know: we suck at Afghanistan.

But THAT isn't what got him in trouble this week. What got him in trouble was saying that if we didn't get these troops into Afghanistan within twelve months we "risk an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible," and our efforts "are likely to result in mission failure."

I'll admit that language shocked me too-"mission failure"-but then I had to think about it. I had to think pretty hard, too.

(edited) What does "mission failure" mean in Afghanistan? The way I understand mission failure is that it occurs whenever you do not achieve mission success. So what does "mission success" mean in Afghanistan? I dug back into that report and I notice on page 2-20 there is paragraph called "V. Assessments: Measuring Progress" that basically announces that ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) needs to come up with some goals and some metrics to determine what "progress" means. In other words the criteria for"mission success" have not been defined yet. Either that or the top NATO commander in Afghanistan has not been informed of them.

(updated) Let me reiterate my definition of mission failure: mission failure occurs when you fail to accomplish your mission. If there is no definition for mission success, then there is no definition for mission failure.

So I don't think there is such a thing as "mission success" and I think that also means that there is such a thing as "mission failure" in Afghanistan. And if you think that increasing casualties, a turning civilian population, a corrupt government, and a growing insurgency in prisons can be "mission failure", then we've already failed the mission.

(updated) General McChrystal also writes in his report on page 1-4 that "resources will not win this war, but under-resourcing can lose it." Here, he is still talking about losing a war that there is no criteria for winning or losing. This might be tricky: mission success does not result from avoiding a loss in the war. It works the other way around. This request is about having enough troops to prolong the conflict, because with the situation the way it is (not on the ground, but on the mission orders) this war is literally "un-winnable." By General McChrystal's own words, these extra troops will only stave off defeat, but will not win the conflict.

This reminded me of something.

A few weeks ago, I was orienting a group of ROTC cadets to a paint ball arena on their first bout with another team. I told them the strategy they needed was simply this: WIN!

I told them a little bit about how to do it. The exercise was to communicate, move and shoot. Just like daddy did it, and just like his daddy did it. They listened to that advice a little bit, but they all liked hearing me say that all we had to do was "WIN!"

And it worked too. Out of a total of a dozen or so bouts in two weeks of paint ball I only lost one of them. I told each of them the same thing and they all fought in about the same way. But there wasn't much guiding them other than my one-word strategy.

The fighting continued until one side was completely wiped out, or time ran out. Whoever held the most ground, or "killed" the most of their adversaries by the end "won" the bout. Sometimes, it wasn't clear who had won, and I merely claimed victory for my side out of pride and habit.

So I think this is what decides a mission's outcome when there are no criteria for success or failure. Sometimes, one entire side is going to get killed off, which can take a long time to do in Afghanistan. Or maybe one side is eventually just going to claim victory and everybody can move on to the next bout.

But, unfortunately, there isn't anyone holding a clock to let us know when we reach the "time-limit" in our big match in Afghanistan. And meanwhile, General McChrystal is doing his best to make sure we don't "lose".


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