November 13, 2009

COIN 101

The timing had nothing to do with President Obama, but guerrilla warfare is unconcerned. Breaking news of low morale in Afghanistan is the latest psychological and propaganda blow against the White House.

A survey of soldiers, conducted by the US Army from April to June, found that personal morale had improved from 15% in 2007 to 17.6, but unit morale is down to 5.7% from 10%. Mental health problems, to no surprise, increase with each tour of duty. Military officials are racing to lower the ratio of soldiers to mental health officials from the present 1/1,123 to the military's goal of 1/700.

President Obama can take these statistics with a grain of salt: this time he isn't responsible for sliding morale. And although the work is just beginning, annual Army studies are a positive sign that the military is increasing care and supervision of those on the battlefield. Obama has vocally supported veteran care reform and he must keep pushing.

He needs momentum for the future.

Naturally a connection must be drawn between low morale and mission drift. Those troops Obama deployed in March don't really have a mission other than to follow their orders. Knowing your general is upset with the civilian leadership can't be good, nor can the perception that Obama is in over his head. Soldiers are Americans, and they want answers as bad as the rest of us.

Eventually Obama will make a decision, potentially eliminating the present manifestation of this problem, but it could easily take a new form. Despite a solid strategy and accompanying resources, Afghanistan could still drift off course and return, several years later, to the same debate of more troops/less troops, stay/go.

Judging by the Army's survey, Obama must be especially vigilant of troop morale in the next seven years. Assuming that he'll escalate the war, troops will still be fighting in Afghanistan when he leaves office. The relative stability of Iraq isn't likely to visit Kabul in three to five years.

Afghanistan is pure protracted warfare, from the terrain to culture to history to time.

America began its adventure in 1980 by baiting the Soviets and funding the Mujahideen. Civil war between 1988 and 2000 can't be termed direct warfare, but it was a direct result of American interference. Returning in 2001 continued the war where it left off instead of beginning of a new one.

Add another decade of combat, a decade of nation-building, and America is looking at 50 years. Not a stalemate like Korea - half a century of protracted warfare. That's a lot of tours of duty when it's becoming scientific fact what happens to a soldier's mental health.

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