Tuesday, September 22, 2009

McChrystal's ball

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new top dog of American forces in Afghanistan, authored an assessment of the U.S. military posture in that country, one that proposes a change in American military strategy is necessary for prevailing in the Afghan war.

But McChrystal’s viewpoint is essentially wedded to the same militarily reflexive call for more troops, and the same shopworn notions of winning and losing, as held sway in Iraq — indeed, the same idea of victory and defeat that’s informed military thinking since World War II.

McChrystal recently completed a classified report requesting significant numbers of new American troops. Parts of it were previously leaked to The Washington Post and published on Monday. Military officials familiar with the report told The Wall Street Journal that it “lays out several options, including one that seeks roughly 40,000 reinforcements.” This, according to The Journal’s count, would increase the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to the mind-boggling prospect of more than 100,000 American forces in that country for the first time.

But something complicates the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, and should give military planners and the White House serious pause about committing more Americans to Afghanistan: namely, a government that has neither the confidence of the American military, nor the confidence of the Afghan people themselves.

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In the assessment’s "Commander's Summary," McChrystal wrote that if the Taliban's momentum could not be stemmed or reversed in the next 12 months, defeating that insurgency may no longer be possible. “Time matters; we must act now to reverse the negative trends and demonstrate progress,” he wrote.

McChrystal's assessment also calls for twice the projected number of needed Afghan security forces from 200,000 police, army and other forces to about 400,000.

Proponents of McChrystal’s thinking believe that more troops would elicit the same results in Afghanistan as the “surge” of U.S. forces in Iraq in 2007. They say such a surge is necessary because Afghanistan is bigger than Iraq in both land area and population, its web of ethnicities and tribal alliances more complicated.

But that’s exactly why an attempt to superimpose the surge strategy a la Iraq onto Afghanistan may not work. The concentration of new U.S. forces, the surge itself, would be immediately diffused in a wider geographic theater of potential conflict. The surge that worked in the cities and small towns of Iraq would seem to be less effective in small villages with miles of open country and inhospitable terrain between them.

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That’s also why the absence of a trusted, reliable central government is problematical to the American effort. Making a similar commitment in Afghanistan as in Iraq calls for that central government to take the lead in navigating the intertribal network, in recruiting Afghan forces, in making the winning of Afghan “hearts and minds” possible, and in reassuring NATO partners in the coalition that the government will accept the task of taking the lead in saving its own country.

The recent apparent re-election of President Hamid Karzai — “an election not so much marred by allegations of fraud as defined by them,” Keith Olbermann said recently on MSNBC — has been a process that underscores how corrupt and intractable a government can be.

The election, which began Aug. 20, elicited accusations from international monitors of widespread corruption and election fraud, including stuffed ballot boxes, vote counts that didn’t jibe with local census figures; intimidation, government-ordered media blackouts and other misdeeds. They’re still counting the ballots in an election widely seen as fatally flawed from start to finish.

With such a government in control in Kabul, the question becomes not how many American forces on the ground can effect the desired outcome, but whether American military might can effect that outcome at all.

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One of the bigger unresolved problems for the United States is coming to terms with a concrete definition of “victory” in the context of an asymmetrical war whose boundaries have less to do with geography than with religion, cultural tradition and tribal influence.

McChrystal’s invocation of the absolutes of winning and losing is an eerie echo of that of Gen. David Petreaus, formerly the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Talking with NPR’s Alex Chadwick about the Iraq situation in March 2008, Petraeus offered a definition of victory, saying it would mean "an Iraq that is at peace with itself, at peace with its neighbors, that has a government that is representative of — and responsive to — its citizenry and is a contributing member of the global community."

It’s difficult to imagine McChrystal considering anything else, or anything less, as a definitional benchmark for “victory” in Afghanistan. With that in mind, it’s clear that a functioning “responsive” government is central to American objectives. Without one, it’s impossible to envision how a plan for “victory” could exist in the first place, regardless of the number of U.S. boots on the ground.

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If President Obama needs a clear indication of what not to do, there may be no clearer signpost than the reactions to the McChrystal assessment made by some Republicans in Congress.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell weighed in Monday with an argument he could have resurrected verbatim from the stay-the-course days of the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq.

McConnell said the general’s plan should be adopted. Full stop. “[A]nything less would confirm al-Qaeda’s view that America lacks the strength and resolve to endure a long war.”

Given the reflexive animosities of the Republicans in Congress, it’s a tempting and purely intuitive strategy: What not to do? Whatever your political enemy says you should do. Not necessarily a bad idea when you’re a president facing a loyal opposition that’s lately prided itself on being more opposition than loyal.

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For the U.S. forces and the NATO forces they lead, the task of painting the Taliban as a dangerous force that runs counter to the interests and goodwill of the Afghan people is complicated tremendously when the Afghan government is widely seen as being the same thing.

This is the cloud over McChrystal’s forecast. The general’s assessment presupposes that armed might is the best option against the insurgency. With a trusted, reliable government in place to help do the heavy lifting of outreach and recruitment, that might be true. But attempting to pacify a country by force sends a message that’s at best at odds with itself; trying to do that while building a citizen army without a government to help is the kind of vexing mission that could keep American forces in Afghanistan for decades.

It’s presumably this calculus that’s made Defense Secretary Robert Gates (no doubt with a nudge from the White House) order McChrystal to delay submitting the request for more troops until the administration can complete a review of the strategy.

Implicit in this is Obama’s intent not to be pushed or pressured into a decision. Obama may just be playing for time; with the fierce Afghan winter not far off, McChrystal’s assessment may have some legitimate urgency. But the president’s desire to give troop escalation in Afghanistan a serious rethinking may be this nation’s best hope for getting out of Afghanistan much the same way we’re getting out of Iraq: by concentrating the mind of a country’s leadership on the idea of that country without us in it.
Image credits: McChrystal: U.S. Army (public domain). Fighting in East Paktika: The Associated Press. Karzai: Harald Dettenborn, Munich Security Conference. Petraeus: Robert D. Ward, Defense Dept. (public domain). Obama: Still from MSNBC.

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