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On Point

McChrystal's Afghan Offensive


by Austin Bay
February 16, 2010

NATO's Afghan offensive began with an advertising blitz.

America's commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, made sure everyone in an eclectic, diverse audience knew the assault was coming. News of NATO's impending attack in Helmand province permeated regional and international mass media.

The sales pitch, however, was even more comprehensive and explicitly targeted. T-shirts and legendary U.S. Marine bravado played a role. For weeks Marines sported T-shirts that read, "Just do Marja," the town of Marja being a major position held by Taliban forces.

If you don't think the T-shirts and swagger spurred local rumor and gossip -- which are important channels of communication in every culture, but especially in a society where literacy is rare -- then you don't understand the power of swagger and the pan-human effectiveness of word of mouth promotion.

McChrystal's Helmand plan intentionally sacrifices strategic and operational surprise, and does so with good reason. McCrystal seeks a "combination victory" in Helmand province, a victory where military success on the battlefield translates into a political and information warfare coup that will resonate throughout Afghanistan and into Pakistan's rebellious tribal regions.

Surveying elements of the diverse audience his "information preparation of the battlefield" targeted helps explain the gambit, risks and potential payoffs.

Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan are an audience. The essential message is brilliantly plain. Taliban fighters attracted to martyrdom, here's your chance. We're coming. Get ready, especially in Marja. We will take your best shot, then crush you. The Marines' swagger adds a taunt to McChrystal's calculated challenge to tribal macho.

McChrystal intends to defeat the Taliban but also embarrass them by exposing their limitations and portraying these limitations as an impotence. That leads to another local audience: Afghan civilians in the battle area.

The ad blitz obviously serves as a warning to leave the battle zone or, failing that, to seek shelter. Last year, McChrystal made it clear that he intends to do his damnedest to limit civilian casualties and collateral damage.

The Taliban get cooperation by coercion -- this is what the Taliban did when they ruled Afghanistan, it is their method when they occupy an area. Taliban who flee without a fight are exposed as bullies.

As for Taliban who fight? The Taliban typically use "human shields" as a cruel defensive measure -- which means they take the populace hostage and invite attack. NATO's insistent warnings anticipate this heinous tactic and serve as a "pre-emptive political counter" (locally, regionally and internationally) to accusations by Taliban propagandists that the U.S. intentionally killed Afghan civilians.

McChrystal continually emphasizes population protection, which is key to political and economic progress. Driving the Taliban from Marja frees the town's populace from Taliban intimidation but in the long term does not ensure it. Effective protection requires sustained local security and police operations.

Afghanis argue that the Afghan National Army (ANA) is much better than it was four years ago, but no one believes the ANA is capable of handling the Taliban without extended international support. This suggests McChrystal intends to keep significant forces in Helmand to deter future Taliban forays. Building a capable ANA is a long-term project, but it can and must be done.

McChrystal is waging a 21st century war, but warfare has always engaged cultural and psychological dimensions.

Many commentators regard Alexander the Great's refusal to conduct a night attack on Persian forces at Gaugamela (the site is located in northern Iraq) as "combat advertising" to achieve a political objective. Alexander was selling invincibility, and a night attack could be "spun" as an act of desperation by the Persians.

Moreover, the Persians had physically altered the battlefield, creating maneuver space for their cavalry and (according to some sources) building graded attack lanes for chariots. They had readied their "best shot." Alexander concluded a victory over a numerically superior enemy force on terrain the enemy selected and specially prepared would deal a devastating psychological and hence political blow to Persia's emperor, Darius III.

Alexander won the battle. Darius fled -- and had no excuses.

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