After McChrystal: Obama, Petraeus, and Fixing a Failed Strategy in Afghanistan

The newspapers will be filled for days with information and views regarding Obama’s June 23 firing of General Stanley McChrystal and his replacement by General David Petraeus as commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.

McChrystal’s negative comments about his colleagues as reported in Rolling Stone magazine reflected very poor judgment, as McChrystal himself and also Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admitted. There were also previous instances of very poor judgment by McChrystal since he assumed command in Afghanistan.

A number of questions arose which Obama may have taken into account in reaching his decision to replace McChrystal.

One of the most important was the question of how McChrystal could be an effective team member on a team about whose members he or members of his entourage had spoken in such disparaging terms.

How could he lead the ISAF coalition, or keep France on board with the coalition? Did McChrystal bear any responsibility for the fact that some of our closest allies (e.g., Canada) are withdrawing their forces from Afghanistan?

Even more fundamental questions were raised, however, which now will have to be considered anew and with fresh eyes by Petraeus, Obama, and the new team.

Perhaps the most important is what the strategy of the United States and coalition forces is going to be going forward, after the abject failure of the current strategy led by McChrystal.

The official U.S. counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan is to secure and protect the population rather than focus on killing the enemy. The real policy as it is currently being implemented is one that focuses on killing leaders of the Taliban through predator drone strikes and assassination by special operations forces.

The lack of progress in Marja reveals that the much-touted concept of a “government in a box” to be installed following the military’s flushing out of the Taliban is a cruel illusion.

It is not going to happen, not under the government of Hamid Karzai.

The real policy is one of beating down the enemy through the use of the U.S. killing machine that couples real-time intelligence with the capabilities of drone aircraft and special operations forces on the ground. Reports that half the U.S. forces being deployed to Afghanistan are special ops and similar troops underlines this point.

The real policy, led by McChrystal, has not worked. The situation in Afghanistan has not improved since he assumed command. To the contrary, there are many indications that it has continued to deteriorate.

As for our counter-insurgency strategy, the strategy laid out by David Petraeus and his colleagues in the U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Manual in December 2006, it is submitted, requires the presence of troops on the ground in numbers that far exceed the number of troops now in Afghanistan, even after the so-called “surge”. Should the U.S. begin to withdraw troops in mid-2011, as promised, the idea that we are implementing Petraeus’ counter-insurgency strategy as enunciated in U.S. military doctrine would become even more divorced from reality than it is today.

To be sure, the 2011 date for “the commencement” of a process of withdrawal, subject to conditions on the ground, was never more than a political fiction used to make the increase in American troops politically palatable back home in the U.S.

Now, things are going really badly in Afghanistan.

The principal men that permitted the U.S. to have some independence from Ahmed Karzai’s control of intelligence provided to the U.S. military in the South, Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan intelligence chief, with longstanding and close ties to the CIA, and Hanif Atmar, Minister of the Interior, are gone. Saleh was fired by Karzai several weeks ago, when the Minister of the Interior in charge of the police was also sacked. These were two men viewed by U.S. officials as able counterparts.

The end result of their dismissal was that Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Karzai’s half-brother, has an even firmer grip on the flow of intelligence shared with the Americans and the allies in Kandahar and the South. Without that intelligence, it is likely that U.S. forces would be operating largely in the dark, at least in strategic terms.

The Karzai brothers had, in effect, “rolled” McChrystal, which may help to explain why Hamid Karzai came out so strongly in support of McChrystal, the “best” U.S. commander Afghanistan has ever had, in his view. One need hardly ask who he thinks the worst has been (hint: he has a German name).

General McChrystal had earned a new assignment. The stress had obviously gotten to him, or he would not have been making colossal errors in judgment. If he made these poor judgments in speaking about his colleagues and allowing those around him to speak about his colleagues in a disparaging manner, what other errors of judgment might he have made?

His judgments affected the lives of thousands of U.S. and allied troops.

It is clear now, if it wasn’t last fall, that President Obama made a deeply flawed decision when he handed control over our policy in Afghanistan to the military in general and McChrystal in particular.

The much-touted policy review on Afghanistan represented no more than a delaying tactic designed to generate political support and gain time, for what in the end was an approval of McChrystal’s planned “surge” of 40,000 men. Obama authorized “30,000” which with logistical and other support became a much larger number, and with 10,000 additional promised allied troops, McChrystal’s demand was essentially satisfied.

Our nation’s strategy in Afghanistan has become twisted and distorted beyond recognition. We say we are implementing Petraeus’ counterinsurgency doctrine, when in point of fact half of the forces we are sending to the country are Special Ops and similar forces, to assist in the project of decapitating the Taliban while proving our killing machine is more effective than theirs.

We have abandoned the democratic project which the U.S., allied governments and the U.N. had as their stated objective for eight years, leaving Afghan police and military and ordinary Afghan citizens with no ideal to fight for.

The war has become about how to get the U.S. forces out, even if this means returning the people of Afghanistan to the power of the warlords, and the women of Afghanistan to the warlords and the repression and abuse of a very backward traditional and tribal society.

Instead of leading the people of Afghanistan into the 21st century, we have decided that it is sufficient for our exit purposes to allow them to return to the 19th (or 13th) century.

Nonetheless, Obama now has an opportunity to begin to correct the bad decisions he has made in the past on Afghanistan.

He should immediately reconstitute his circle of advisers to ensure that his Afghanistan team includes sufficient civilians of sufficient experience and stature to counterbalance the strong concentration of military advisers in his inner circle. These should include top U.S. diplomats with experience working in the region.

The first task of this reconstituted group should be to reread Karl Eikenberry’s cables from last November, and to devise a strategy for going forward.

That strategy must recognize that Hamid Karzai is not, and never will be, a reliable partner.

It must focus on ensuring to the maximum extent possible that the elections to the National Assembly to be held on September 18, 2010 are free and fair elections.

We must reconsider the democratic project in Afghanistan, so quickly abandoned by Obama, but which may alone contain the seeds of motivation that could one day lead to an effective national Afghan army and police force.

It must address the urgent need to prevent the further alienation of present and former members of the Northern Alliance, including Abdullah Abdullah, Amrullah Saleh, and others. Little will be gained if a reconciliation between Karzai and the Taliban in the South (should it ever occur) leads to renewed hostilities between the North and the South.

Presumably, Petraeus and Obama, with input from Eikenberry, Holbrooke, and others, can take steps to improve the types of and deployment of troops going to Afghanistan, in view of the limited force levels available from the U.S. and other allies.

It will be important for Obama, Gates and Petraeus to lead a process of reshaping our strategy in Afghanistan that reflects Petraeus’ own, fresh understanding and vision, and that of other key team members including in particular Karl Eikenberry, instead of simply trying to continue to implement the current strategy.

This reexamination should be done as soon as possible. In particular, McChrystal’s accommodations with the Karzai brothers with respect to the Kandahar campaign should be revisited.

The decisions faced by Obama are much bigger than the decision of whether or not to fire McChrystal. The deeper questions include the following:

When will the United States reconcile the total contradiction between the facts on the ground in Afghanistan and our real strategy there, with the requirements of official U.S. counterinsurgency strategy as enunciated by David Petraeus and the U.S. military?

When will the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan shift from trying to out-kill the Taliban with our incredible killing machine to a more nuanced, informed and broad-gauged strategy?

When will the United States have a military and civilian team in place in and for Afghanistan that can work effectively with each other, and with our allies?

When will President Obama pay enough sustained attention to Afghanistan to get it right?

What is needed now is not eight afternoons over a number of months, but two weeks at Camp David with a small group of advisers.

Obama could also spend a day a week working alone, without aides, on getting his own thinking straight on Afghanistan.

The United States and the world need his leadership, not his acquiescence in the failed policies of the past.

The Trenchant Observer
Follow “trenchantobserv” on

Comments are invited.

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas, and who has also been a visiting professor at the University of Costa Rica Law Faculty in San José. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, the Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.) from Stanford University, and a Doctor of Juridical Science (S.J.D.) in International Law from Harvard University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Stanford University, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, the Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

1 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Do as a I Say, Not as I Do

Comments are closed.