The newspapers will be filled for days with information and views regarding Obama’s meeting with Stanley McChrystal and his Afghanistan team on Wednesday, June 23, in Washington.
McChrystal’s negative comments about his colleagues as reported in Rolling Stone magazine reflect very poor judgment, as McChrystal himself and also Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have admitted. There have been previous instances of very poor judgment by McChrystal since he assumed command in Afghanistan.
A number of questions arise.
One of the most important is the question of how McChrystal can be an effective team member on a team about whose members he or members of his entourage have spoken in such disparaging terms.
How can he lead the ISAF coalition, or keep France on board with the coalition? Does McChrystal bear any responsibility for the fact that some of our closest allies (e.g., Canada) are withdrawing their forces from Afghanistan? Could our disregard for international law with our policy of targeted killings have had some negative impact in this regard?
Even more fundamental questions are raised, however.
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.
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 requires the presence of troops on the ground in numbers that far exceed the numbers 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 delusional 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 Karzai 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, U.S. forces would be operating largely in the dark.
The Karzai brothers have, in effect, “rolled” McChrystal, which may help to explain why Hanid Karzai has come 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, but I would wager he has a German name.
General McChrystal has earned a new assignment. The stress has obviously gotten to him, or he would not be making colossal errors in judgment. If he has 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 may he have made?
His judgments affect 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 fatally flawed decision when he handed control over our policy in Afghanistan to the military in general and McChrystal and Petraeus 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 is 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.
Regardless of when McChrystal leaves, Obama should immediately reconstitute his circle of advisers to ensure that his Afghanistan team includes civilians to counterbalance the strong concentration of military advisers in his inner circle. These should include the top U.S. diplomats 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 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.
Should McChrystal go?
The question is not if, but when.
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 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
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