Benjamin Friedman notes new Afghanistan commanding general Stanley McChrystal’s background in the “sharp” or “kinetic” end of special forces work and raises some concerns:
In the (recently released!) book on the post Cold War evolution of the US military that I co-edited, Colin Jackson and Austin Long have a chapter discussing the politics of special operations command. They argue that the direct action theory of victory in counterinsurgency is a close relative to the air force’s theory of decapitation, which says you can defeat a nation by attacking its leaders from the air. They explain that direct action has long been the favored tactic of secret or “black” SOF organizations like Delta Force, but that the wars made it the dominant mission in SOCOM as a whole, crowding traditional “white” counterinsurgency missions like population protection, force training, and civil affairs. To them, that is a problem, because the direct action theory of victory is badly flawed. You can’t kill your way to victory in these sorts of wars, they argue. That’s particularly true in Afghanistan, I’d add, where distance and poor roads make the exploitation of intelligence far more time-consuming.
I don’t know to what extent McChrystal shares the black SOF worldview. He would probably say that direct action is just part of the toolkit. It is possible, however, that his appointment reflects a decision to downplay nation-building in Afghanistan and focus more on killing raids and training Afghan soldiers.
I think the use of the term “nation building” probably obscures more than it reveals in this context. The real crux of the matter is that in a geographical sub-portion of Afghanistan where there’s insurgent activity happening, US forces face a choice at the margin between trying to identify and kill insurgents, and trying to identify and protect civilian population centers.