The controversial article which led to today’s resignation by the top commander in Afghanistan and David Petraeus as his replacement is discussed as if it was a celebrity gossip column. It actually makes the substantive case that the occupation of Afghanistan is regressively destructive.
An article by Michael Hastings at Rolling Stone has led to the resignation of the commander of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) occupying Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. The media bru-haha is focused on the ISAF commander’s (COMISAF) loose-tongue, a blatant disrespect from him and staff toward the Obama Administration, U.S. diplomats, congresspeople and NATO allies in the coalition.
Sadly, the highlight of the article is where Mr. Hastings concludes: “counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war”. Furthermore, The New York Times keenly pointed out last night at its editorial page that the “article doesn’t suggest any serious policy disagreements between the president and Gen. McChrystal”.
Gen. McChrystal, all have reasonably been under the impression, is on the same page with his replacement, Gen. David Petraeus—now-former commander U.S. Central Command and central crafter of the U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN) that has been successfully sold to President Barack Obama. The president’s campaign rhetoric to replicate the Iraq Surge in Afghanistan displayed that he was sold long before becoming president. “This is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy,” he assured the press in his speech today.
The article notes the military is likely to want another troop surge next summer when the president is scheduled to begin cutting down the U.S. military presence. In the first paragraph, Mr. Hastings notes how the Afghan occupation is becoming more and more overtly unilateral:
He’s in France to sell his new war strategy to our NATO allies—to keep up the fiction, in essence, that we actually have allies. Since McChrystal took over a year ago, the Afghan war has become the exclusive property of the United States. Opposition to the war has already toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of Germany’s president and sparked both Canada and the Netherlands to announce the withdrawal of their 4,500 troops. McChrystal is in Paris to keep the French, who have lost more than 40 soldiers in Afghanistan, from going all wobbly on him.
Mr. Hastings notes that Gen. McChrystal “first encountered Obama a week after he took office, when the president met with a dozen senior military officials” at the Pentagon and “sources familiar with the meeting” said “McChrystal thought Obama looked ‘uncomfortable and intimidated’ by the roomful of military brass”.
In March 2009, the president added 21,000 troops to the occupation of Afghanistan and soon after replaced Gen. David McKiernan with Gen. McChrystal as COMISAF. Upon having his first a one-on-one with the president as the new COMISAF, Gen. McChrystal expressed that there was no commitment from the president to the occupation operations:
Their first one-on-one meeting took place in the Oval Office four months later, after McChrystal got the Afghanistan job, and it didn’t go much better. “It was a 10-minute photo op,” says an adviser to McChrystal. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his fucking war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.”
The fact is that the operations in Afghanistan revolve around the Petraeus Doctrine of COIN. Another fact is that COIN is a complex, multi-faceted effort to ‘save’ a ‘failed state’. Another fact is that foreign occupation does not save failed states. The military aspects of COIN, in practice, have varying effects as occupation forces live among the local population in some places, police the streets in others, perform tactical raids in others, execute all-out military offensives in others, etc.:
COIN calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation’s government —a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve. The theory essentially rebrands the military, expanding its authority (and its funding) to encompass the diplomatic and political sides of warfare: Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps. In 2006, after Gen. David Petraeus beta-tested the theory during his “surge” in Iraq, it quickly gained a hardcore following of think-tankers, journalists, military officers and civilian officials. Nicknamed “COINdinistas” for their cultish zeal, this influential cadre believed the doctrine would be the perfect solution for Afghanistan.
“The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people,” says Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel and leading critic of counterinsurgency who attended West Point with McChrystal. “The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.
In its most idealistic format, benchmarks are required to evaluate and modify strategy and direct tactics; more importantly, measuring the status quo to the benchmarks and sub-marks are crucial to the execution. Even then, everything can go perfect, and it can all be for naught. Yet, the commander-in-chief of the Afghanistan occupation showed little concern for the actual strategy, tactics or for what he is aiming with prolonging and expanding the occupation to the top commander of the mission.
The controversy that has risen from Mr. Hastings’ article seems to be ridiculous. In the early days of being with the COMISAF and his squad and his conclusion after the month with them was:
The general’s staff is a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs. There’s a former head of British Special Forces, two Navy Seals, an Afghan Special Forces commando, a lawyer, two fighter pilots and at least two dozen combat veterans and counterinsurgency experts. They jokingly refer to themselves as Team America, taking the name from the South Park-esque sendup of military cluelessness, and they pride themselves on their can-do attitude and their disdain for authority.
The fact is that COIN is not, has not and most likely will not be effective to secure the Afghan population from militant resistance to the Kabul government and the quest for governing power by the more organized factions of the resistance.
Pres. Obama entertained—what was referred to at the time as—“the four options”, which The Washington Post (WaPo) reported at the time would cost around $1bn per thousand troops. Christi Parsons and Julian Barnes reported them at the Los Angeles Times as:
- At least 40,000 additional troops, the ‘medium-risk’ option from General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander of the U.S.-led occupation—the ‘low-risk’ option being an escalation of 80,000 troops;
- 34,000 additional troops, including 23,000 for combat and support, 7,000 for the occupiers’ command base and 4,000 trainers, officials confirmed over the weekend;
- 20,000 additional troops, the ‘high-risk’ option from Gen. McChrystal—”known by military planners as ‘the hybrid’,” WaPo reports, “to shore up security in 10 to 12 major population areas”; and
- around 12,000 additional troops, supported by Senator John Kerry (D-MA), more geared toward counterterrorism operations, maintaining the same troop level for counterinsurgency.
To execute a COIN strategy in Afghanistan, the U.S. and its allies would have needed to commit at least another 100,000 troops to begin building an Afghan Security Force of 400,000. This assessment was made by us before military officials confirmed the number, 600,000, as the amount of ISAF forces plus those allied with the Kabul government needed to begin stabilizing Afghanistan.
“Nation-building would be impossible even if we knew how, and even if Afghanistan were not the second-worst place to try,” George Will wrote last September at WaPo. “Afghanistan would need hundreds of thousands of coalition troops, perhaps for a decade or more. That is inconceivable.”
The president pledged 30,000 more troops, showing he “had thrown his weight, however hesitantly, behind the counterinsurgency crowd”, according to Mr. Hastings, but adds that realism is gutting the COINdeologues:
Today, as McChrystal gears up for an offensive in southern Afghanistan, the prospects for any kind of success look bleak. In June, the death toll for U.S. troops passed 1,000, and the number of IEDs has doubled. Spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the fifth-poorest country on earth has failed to win over the civilian population, whose attitude toward U.S. troops ranges from intensely wary to openly hostile. The biggest military operation of the year—a ferocious offensive that began in February to retake the southern town of Marja—continues to drag on, prompting McChrystal himself to refer to it as a “bleeding ulcer.” In June, Afghanistan officially outpaced Vietnam as the longest war in American history—and Obama has quietly begun to back away from the deadline he set for withdrawing U.S. troops in July of next year. The president finds himself stuck in something even more insane than a quagmire: a quagmire he knowingly walked into, even though it’s precisely the kind of gigantic, mind-numbing, multigenerational nation-building project he explicitly said he didn’t want.
Even those who support McChrystal and his strategy of counterinsurgency know that whatever the general manages to accomplish in Afghanistan, it’s going to look more like Vietnam than Desert Storm. “It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win,” says Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, who serves as chief of operations for McChrystal. “This is going to end in an argument.”
Where the COINdeologues’ fire is fueled is that:
While McChrystal and his men are in indisputable command of all military aspects of the war, there is no equivalent position on the diplomatic or political side. Instead, an assortment of administration players compete over the Afghan portfolio: U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, National Security Advisor Jim Jones and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not to mention 40 or so other coalition ambassadors and a host of talking heads who try to insert themselves into the mess, from John Kerry to John McCain. This diplomatic incoherence has effectively allowed McChrystal’s team to call the shots and hampered efforts to build a stable and credible government in Afghanistan. “It jeopardizes the mission,” says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who supports McChrystal. “The military cannot by itself create governance reform.”
Mr. Hastings notes the “strained” relationship with Gen. McChrystal and Amb. Eikenberry, a three-star lieutenant-general stationed in Afghanistan in 2002-05:
The relationship was further strained in January, when a classified cable that Eikenberry wrote was leaked to The New York Times. The cable was as scathing as it was prescient. The ambassador offered a brutal critique of McChrystal’s strategy, dismissed President Hamid Karzai as “not an adequate strategic partner,” and cast doubt on whether the counterinsurgency plan would be “sufficient” to deal with Al Qaeda. “We will become more deeply engaged here with no way to extricate ourselves,” Eikenberry warned, “short of allowing the country to descend again into lawlessness and chaos.”
Gen. McChrystal called this a “betrayal”, adding the purpose was to the ambassador to “save face in the history books… if we fail”. Mr. Hastings adds his “handling” of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is the “most striking example of [the COMISAF’s] usurpation of diplomatic policy”:
It is McChrystal, not diplomats like Eikenberry or Holbrooke, who enjoys the best relationship with the man America is relying on to lead Afghanistan. The doctrine of counterinsurgency requires a credible government, and since Karzai is not considered credible by his own people, McChrystal has worked hard to make him so. Over the past few months, he has accompanied the president on more than 10 trips around the country, standing beside him at political meetings, or shuras, in Kandahar.
This is one of the central flaws with McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy: The need to build a credible government puts us at the mercy of whatever tin-pot leader we’ve backed—a danger that Eikenberry explicitly warned about in his cable. Even Team McChrystal privately acknowledges that Karzai is a less-than-ideal partner. “He’s been locked up in his palace the past year,” laments one of the general’s top advisers.
The Kandahar province has been seen as a territory “vital” to control by ISAF and planned a heavy military surge to do so which was scheduled for this month. After a surge into the Marja province—that has been dubbed a self-defeating failure, in theory and practice, by any reasonable standards—has left a larger mess, the Kandahar Surge has been delayed for a couple of months.
The illegitimacy of the Kabul government is highlighted by the atrocities of ISAF operations since Pres. Obama began his troop surge in March 2009. Since announcing his second surge, more ‘hearts and minds’ have been lost:
In the first four months of this year, NATO forces killed some 90 civilians, up 76 percent from the same period in 2009—a record that has created tremendous resentment among the very population that COIN theory is intent on winning over. In February, a Special Forces night raid ended in the deaths of two pregnant Afghan women and allegations of a cover-up, and in April, protests erupted in Kandahar after U.S. forces accidentally shot up a bus, killing five Afghans. “We’ve shot an amazing number of people,” McChrystal recently conceded.
Despite the tragedies and miscues, McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It’s “insurgent math,” as he calls it—for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies.
Mr. Hastings notes that the soldiers are not very mathematical, as many are dissatisfied and fearful of being told to show restraint. And this is a key flaw to COIN doctrine: you can have a great cause and policy, but the executors aren’t deeply comprehensive of the rationale behind getting from point A to B to C, etc. Mr. Hastings reported of a talk Gen. McChrystal had with soldiers:
The Taliban, he insists, no longer has the initiative—“but I don’t think we do, either.” It’s similar to the talk he gave in Paris, but it’s not winning any hearts and minds among the soldiers. “This is the philosophical part that works with think tanks,” McChrystal tries to joke. “But it doesn’t get the same reception from infantry companies.”
During the question-and-answer period, the frustration boils over. The soldiers complain about not being allowed to use lethal force, about watching insurgents they detain be freed for lack of evidence. They want to be able to fight—like they did in Iraq, like they had in Afghanistan before McChrystal. “We aren’t putting fear into the Taliban,” one soldier says.
A soldier complains that under the rules, any insurgent who doesn’t have a weapon is immediately assumed to be a civilian. “That’s the way this game is,” McChrystal says. “It’s complex. I can’t just decide: It’s shirts and skins, and we’ll kill all the shirts.”
If there’s a lack of evidence, how is the person they’re watching ‘go free’ an insurgent? An insurgent is simply an illegitimate rebel and legitimacy is defined as that which is consistent with the will of the Kabul government and ISAF. When both are illegitimate, as they are, COIN is fitting a square peg into a brick wall, as Mr. Hastings added:
“Winning hearts and minds in COIN is a coldblooded thing,” McChrystal says, citing an oft-repeated maxim that you can’t kill your way out of Afghanistan. “The Russians killed 1 million Afghans, and that didn’t work.”
When the man heading the forces’ specialty is the excessively terrorizing village and home raids in the dead of night and targeted extrajudicial assassinations, moral, legal and rational legitimacy is an battle.
Though, the article does a lot to display Gen. McChrystal’s devotion to reprimanding civilian killers among the ISAF ranks, the night raids have just been dirtier and intelligence agencies handle the assassinations in Pakistan.
Mr. Hastings concluded with damning historical facts and the conditions on the ground di8splaying that COIN is a fantasy and using it as a means of occupying Afghanistan, of all places, is insane:
When it comes to Afghanistan, history is not on McChrystal’s side. The only foreign invader to have any success here was Genghis Khan—and he wasn’t hampered by things like human rights, economic development and press scrutiny. The COIN doctrine, bizarrely, draws inspiration from some of the biggest Western military embarrassments in recent memory: France’s nasty war in Algeria (lost in 1962) and the American misadventure in Vietnam (lost in 1975). McChrystal, like other advocates of COIN, readily acknowledges that counterinsurgency campaigns are inherently messy, expensive and easy to lose. “Even Afghans are confused by Afghanistan,” he says. But even if he somehow manages to succeed, after years of bloody fighting with Afghan kids who pose no threat to the U.S. homeland, the war will do little to shut down Al Qaeda, which has shifted its operations to Pakistan. Dispatching 150,000 troops to build new schools, roads, mosques and water-treatment facilities around Kandahar is like trying to stop the drug war in Mexico by occupying Arkansas and building Baptist churches in Little Rock. “It’s all very cynical, politically,” says Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer who has extensive experience in the region. “Afghanistan is not in our vital interest – there’s nothing for us there.”
But facts on the ground, as history has proven, offer little deterrent to a military determined to stay the course. Even those closest to McChrystal know that the rising anti-war sentiment at home doesn’t begin to reflect how deeply fucked up things are in Afghanistan. “If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular,” a senior adviser to McChrystal says. Such realism, however, doesn’t prevent advocates of counterinsurgency from dreaming big: Instead of beginning to withdraw troops next year, as Obama promised, the military hopes to ramp up its counterinsurgency campaign even further. “There’s a possibility we could ask for another surge of U.S. forces next summer if we see success here,” a senior military official in Kabul tells me.
After nine years of war, the Taliban simply remains too strongly entrenched for the U.S. military to openly attack. The very people that COIN seeks to win over—the Afghan people—do not want us there. Our supposed ally, President Karzai, used his influence to delay the offensive, and the massive influx of aid championed by McChrystal is likely only to make things worse. “Throwing money at the problem exacerbates the problem,” says Andrew Wilder, an expert at Tufts University who has studied the effect of aid in southern Afghanistan. “A tsunami of cash fuels corruption, delegitimizes the government and creates an environment where we’re picking winners and losers”—a process that fuels resentment and hostility among the civilian population. So far, counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war. There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word “victory” when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge.
EDIT: Mr. Hastings was on AntiWar Radio with Scott Horton to discuss his article. The interview was posted at AntiWar.com last night (8:09):
Gareth Porter aptly noted at Inter Press Services (via AntiWar.com) the replication of Bush Administration policy in the decision to make Gen. Petraeus the new COMISAF:
In calling on Petraeus, the Obama administration appears to be taking a page from the George W. Bush administration’s late 2006 decision to rescue a war in Iraq which was generally perceived in Washington as having become an embarrassing failure. But both Obama and Petraeus are acutely aware of the differences between the situation in Iraq at that moment and the situation in Afghanistan today.