‘Insurgent Math’ is an arithmetic championed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was the commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan before Obama impressed him into the American army of the unemployed.
‘Insurgent Math’ holds that, “for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies.” It is a foundational concept in the counter-insurgency doctrine that dominates military strategy in Afghanistan. On the battlefield, it has manifested in stricter rules of engagement, specifically with regard to heavy support fire, such as air strikes and artillery barrages. In an attempt to calm the concerned and satisfy the gung-ho, McChrystal sold these rules to the troops under the slogan, ‘Courageous Restraint.’
Now, with the coalition’s war effort marred by major setbacks, it’s increasingly likely that ‘Courageous Restraint’ will be dismissed along with McChrystal.
In February, the coalition launched a highly-touted offensive in the town of Marjah, which, after its takeover, was to receive a “government in a box.” At the time, the local governor warned that the operation could last one month. It has lasted almost five.
Also, in June, McChrystal announced that a critical operation in Kandahar would have to be pushed back from summer to fall, due to an inability to win support from local leaders, “some of whom see the Taliban fighters not as oppressors but as their Muslim brothers.”
In addition to these hitches, U.S. casualties have climbed considerably. June was the deadliest month for U.S. soldiers in the nine-year war and, at the current pace, 2010 will be the deadliest year.
High-profile articles in Rolling Stone and the New York Times report soldiers’ frustrations with the stricter rules of engagement, which many feel put them in increased danger – and let the Taliban off the hook. “Some rules meant to enshrine counterinsurgency principles into daily practices, they say, do not merely transfer risks away from civilians. They transfer risks away from the Taliban,” writes C. J. Chivers of the NYT.
The new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, says he plans to review these rules. It’s doubtful he will eliminate them completely. Like McChrystal, he certainly believes that “you can’t kill your way out of Afghanistan.” Still, in response to a din of criticism about the progress of the war, he’ll likely ease them.
Really, the general faces an intractable dilemma. The idea of ‘Insurgent Math’ is built on sound principles (and on some statistics); civilian casualties undoubtedly inflame popular hatred against the U.S. and its allies. But innocent lives will always be lost in war. While there’s some indication that casualties decreased during McChrystal’s reign, there were still 452 civilians killed by pro-government forces in 2009. By the general’s own equation, that’s 4,520 new insurgents.
To disregard ‘Insurgent Math’ would be both unproductive and unconscionable. Yet, at the same time, strict rules of engagement frustrate the fighting force, while high casualties increase already-prevalent public opposition.
Like the war itself, it’s a no-win situation.