WASHINGTON – The scandal caused by the openly dismissive and offensive language used by General Stanley McChrystal, US and NATO Commander in Afghanistan, and by his staff to characterize the upper echelons of the Obama administration is over. In a series of interviews with a Rolling Stone magazine reporter, amply documented in a long article, McChrystal and his staff described US national security leaders, starting with Vice President Joe Biden, as not so smart amateurs and worse. Mercifully, because of the immediate McChrystal forced resignation and the announcement that General David Petraeus, technically McChrystal boss as Central Command, (CENTCOM), Commander, will replace McChrystal, the White House put a quick end to this embarassment. Going forward, Petraeus looks good. He is well known and he enjoys a high degree of political bi-partisan support –something that should augur a quick confirmation process by the US Senate; while his appointment to this difficult job should stabilize troop morale, as well as relations with the Afghans who know him well.
The strategy is still wrong
So, case closed? Can we safely conclude that, whatever the bizarre reasons for McChrystal egregious and unusual behavior, contrary to the most elementary norms stipulating that the US military works for the civilian leadership and not the other way around, with his removal there is no more reason to worry? Not really.
My contention is that, if McChrystal turned out to be the wrong Commander, the strategy for Afghanistan, crafted mostly by McChrystal himself, is still the wrong strategy. Both are bad. Replacing McChrystal was the right thing to do. In fact, there was no other way of dealing with this mess. McChrystal has been fired not on differences over policy but because of his open disdain for the most sacred of the rules that prescribe uniformed people to always recognize that, here in the United States of America, the president is the Commander in Chief and the military obeys. Sniping at the civilian leadership of the nation is not permissible. No exceptions. The prompt sacking of McChrystal reaffirms, with emphasis, this constitutional principle. But getting rid of him does not change much on the ground in Afghanistan. While announcing that David Petraeus will take over, President Obama reaffirmed the same strategy. And so we still have a problem.
Counterinsurgency may take decades
I wrote here, back in November, (“How To Win in Afghanistan“, November 15, 2009), that choosing a counterinsurgency strategy to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda would not work simply because, even if are lucky, this would take years, may be decades, and huge budgets; right at the time in which we are facing a massive growth of our national debt, something that is bound to cause strong frictions beacuse of conflicting spending priorities. In other words my point was that we have neither the money nor the staying power to mount, sustain and successfully end a counterinsurgency half a world away. If anything, the fiscal picture has gotten worse since last November; while there is less and less political support for this conflict.
Counter insurgency in a very hostile and very difficult terrain is a dirty and long drawn business. The objective of “winning hearts and minds” as a way to deny the Taliban and assorted radicals the support of the Afghan people is laudable in principle. In practice, in the incredibly challenging conditions of Afghanistan, this is almost unachievable, at least under the terms of this strategy. This strategy contemplates building from the ground up credible Afghan institutions, along with the delivery of substantial economic development assistance, so that people will be convinced that they have a stake in peace under competent civilian rule, as opposed to throwing their lot with the Taliban.
The country is inhospitable
Let’s repeat what should be well known. Afghanistan is an extremely poor and underdeveloped landlocked country with harsh terrain and deficient infrastructure. With a per capita income of $ 800 a year, Afghanistan is near the bottom of any scale, ranking 219 out of 227 countries, (CIA World Fact Book). The country never had a strong, credible central government. The society is fragmented along ethnic and tribal lines. Nowadays, the overwhelming majority of the population is under 25. So, to the mix of a country in semi-chaos, involved in almost constant violence for over thirty years, you have to add tens of thousands of young people with no education, no job and very few prospects, whose lot cannot be improved any time soon even if we stipulated that a heroic, superbly crafted, economic development effort would begin today.
Not a good starting point for stability and building trust in weak public institutions, with almost grotesque levels of corruption. (An Afghan politician speaking recently in Washington indicated that it is routine to be asked for bribes even by those who are in charge of accepting normal payments. If you do not pay them a bribe, they will not accept your payment and you will then be delinquent on your bills).
No great results, so far
For the moment, little progress on almost all key fronts relevant to the key objective of winning hearts and minds. Let’s review them: a) Training of the Afghan armed forces and police; b) Instilling confidence in the Kabul Government headed by President Hamid Karzai; c) Creating a US significant “civilian surge” that would give some teeth to the notion of a State Department/USAID led effort at rapidly developing this wretched country; d) Countering opium cultivation and trade which in turn fuels a huge illegal economy, War Lords, the Taliban and assorted friends and (allegedly) family members of Karzai himself.
On all these key fronts things are not going well, or at least they are a lot worse than anticipated when the administration agreed to the current (McChrystal designed) plan contemplating a significant troop surge with the hope, though, of starting a draw down as of July 2011 –which is to say only a year from now.
Reports indicate huge unresolved issues
Recent news stories indicate the over estimation of actual Afghan forces combat capabilities. Simply stated, the Afghans are far less prepared than previously thought, something that puts in question their ability to provide serious support to current operations, let alone successfully take over once we start drawing down. Overall, we are making only slow and inconclusive progress in a variety of military theatres. Violence is rampant. There is no area in which fighting intensified after the surge that can now be rated as totally secure for reconstruction and development to begin in earnest. So, building a new modern and democratic Afghanistan, while showing to the population that the Kabul government is a reliable partner remain distant goals.
According to reports, it is highly questionable that political elections for a new Afghan parliament can be held, as about 50 per cent all electoral districts to date are considered not safe enough for elections. Another major item is the bribes involved in contracting to Afghans of huge logistics operations aimed at keeping US forces in Afghanistan supplied. It turns out that it is impossible to supervise this business, while bribes are routinely paid by contractors and subcontractors to ensure safe passage of convoys. It could very well be that some of these US funds end up financing the Taliban. The opium business continues.
On top of this, after the allegations of major electoral fraud at the time of last year’s presidential elections, the Karzai government does not enjoy any meaningful legitimacy.
Insurgents have the upper hand
In all this, let us remember the ABC of military strategy. As Carl von Clausewitz taught long ago, in any conflict, the fighting is over not when we declare victory, (remember George W. Bush unfortunate speech about the end of major hostilities on the aircraft carrier?), but only when the losing party admits defeat. As banal as this may sound, for any war to end, someone has to say: “I lost. No more”.
In the case of conventional wars this generally happens. In the case of insurgencies, especially when the terrain gives guerrilla fighters an advantage, while at least some segments of the population support them, this admission of defeat may never come; and the conflict will go on and on. As this is the war we are fighting, we should be prepared for fighting protracted well into the future.
Achievable goals via a low profile
I stated before and I restate now that if indeed “sanctuary denial” to the Taliban and al Qaeda is, as it should be, our objective in Afghanistan, then there could be easier and more cost effective ways of achieving this valid strategic objective.
First of all, we should be willing to recognize that building a viable central government is a daunting and may be impossible challenge. Thus we should focus our objectives on something that is both doable and still worthwhile. We should deal as best we can with the local tribal leaders and War Lords. They have more authority and more control on what happens in their regions than any official from Kabul who is not supported either by political legitimacy or sufficient force. If the idea is to have Afghans regain confidence, then allow local Afghans to be in charge. Let’s help them.
US forces should take a very low profile. They cannot secure the country on their own. They are viewed as an invading force. Whatever the plan to help out the local population, young American soldiers, heavily armed, but mostly with little or no knowledge of the local languages and customs, are sore thumbs among villagers. It is a really hard sale for the Afghan population to believe that some boys and girls from Alabama or Kansas, dressed in odd, heavy uniforms, who do not speak their language and who are not Muslim can be trusted as reliable partners for the long haul. Empower the local leaders, allow them to consolidate their authority using their own methods. This may not be neat or pretty; but it is bound to be more effective than our complicated community building strategies along with our mind boggling rules of engagement.
The example of the 2001 invasion
Again, I go back to the CIA-led 2001 campaign in Afghanistan. Its stunning success, with relatively modest numbers of operatives and special forces on the ground, rested on the fact that prior to 9/11 the CIA had built fairly solid relations within Afghanistan. When it was decided to move in trying to defeat al Qaeda, those resources were mobilized. And the Americans who went in were in large numbers CIA operatives, that is civilians, usually wearing local clothes. Still foreigners, this is true. But not an invading army that to the local villagers may have looked like what a Martian invasion may look to us.
Well, the CIA-led operations, aided no doubt by many, many suitcases filled with cash, worked. The War Lords switched sides. The American military, called upon by the operatives on the ground, did a good job bombing Taliban positions, reinforcing the belief that the Americans were good for their word and reliable partners.
Deal with local leaders
Well, I am not suggesting that this is it. Clearly one needs more than a few CIA operatives to help organize and articulate something that will be sustainable. But I would submit that, as there is always a danger of waste, it is probably less wasteful and a lot more cost effective to build personal relationships at the local level, while giving money and some technical assistance to local tribal leaders, instead of funneling the same funds via disastrously incompetent contractors hired by USAID, as it has been done for years. While systems have been changed, along with the strategic overhaul decided by president Obama last fall, the record of achievement, and thus cost effectiveness, for the almost totality of all civilian programs directed by the US government prior to those changes was very bad.
The idea that the same system, even if overhauled and upgraded, may be able to deliver a lot more now, especially in the 50 per cent of the country that is quite unsafe, and thus unsuitable for running complex development projects manned mostly by civilians, is fanciful at best.
Here is a different plan
Here is an idea for president Obama. There is one man who really knows how to run this kind of semi-covert operation. And this man is George Tenet, the retired CIA Director. Tenet’s legacy is of course tainted by the Iraq weapons of mass destruction, WMD, fiasco, conveniently pinned entirely on him. He retired under a heavy cloud of incompetence. But, while I believe that he was treated unfairly regarding WMDs, his conduct of the early phases of the Afghanistan invasion using a light foot print was the right approach.
I wish General Petraeus all the best. Still, unless he decides to drastically modify the current heavy duty, “lots of US boots on the ground”, approach I do not believe that he can do much better than McChrystal –and certainly he will not be able to show major results by July 2011.