COIN and Combat Tours

When President Bush announced that Iraq and Afghanistan combat tours would be cut back to twelve months from their current fifteen, Phil Carter and Kevin Drum had an interesting back and forth and back about tour lengths and counterinsurgency best practices. The upshot of the exchange was that even though counterinsurgency demands familiarity with the area of operations, there’s a point of diminishing returns beyond which the human toll of longer tours interferes with units’ ability to be effective. Here’s Carter:

[T]here’s a finite limit to the amount of combat that men and women can endure. So we must balance combat effectiveness, and the needs of an all-volunteer force (and its families), against the steep learning curve of counterinsurgency, which demands longer deployments.

Today the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, weighed in from “his heavily fortified headquarters” in Kabul. McNeill argued that the fifteen month tours “. . .are critical to making progress in the war against Afghanistan’s Taliban and other insurgents. . .” and that “. . .the greatest gains in the war have come from Soldiers serving the long tours.” He did, however, recognize that they are not feasible:

“It’s not something I advocate we stay on forever,” McNeill said. “We’ve got to ease up on the force a little bit. It’s especially an issue for the families.”

But he said the most successful units have been U.S. Army troops who have “established relationships with the terrain, with the indigenous people and with the enemy, and have had a good amount of time to exploit those relationships and use them to their advantage.”

This does seem to be a wrinkle that needs to be ironed out. Basing a significant operational component of Army doctrine on a tactical approach that is based on a fundamentally irreconciliable dilemma presents obvious problems. Carter suggested using the Marine Corps model of seven-month tours combined with rotating units back into previous areas of operation, thereby providing needed rest along with continuity. Hopefully this will be addressed whenever Gen. Petraeus’ highly praised COIN manual comes up for a revision.