I subscribe to and read just two periodicals with regularity. They are both among the oldest magazines published in the world. One is the left-leaning The Atlantic which began publication in Boston in 1857. The other is more centrist, The Economist, published out of London since 1843. The Economist is a weekly, always chocked full of so much excellent news writing that I never read an entire issue. There's just not enough time before the next one arrives.
I was particularly interested in the latest issue of The Economist over the weekend. It features an excellent cover story on the overall situation in Afghanistan. The focus of the article is not the dismissal of General McChrystal, though that certainly is a strong thread running throughout. It attempts, rather, to summarize the situation in Afghanistan from both a geo-political and strategic military perspective. I read the article rather discriminately, however, trying to see if it revealed exactly what McChrystal was up to in his final days of command in Afghanistan.
The media so far has focused on the general’s poor judgment in the context of the Rolling Stone debacle that led to his recent dismissal. It has also focused on how there is (apparently) no clear agreement on strategy for the war and on the perception that little progress was being made by McChrystal. So was the hot-shot general sitting on his thumbs over there? That’s not the impression I got from the Rolling Stone article itself. Indeed, there are more specifics on McChrystal's productivity mentioned in The Economist, a far superior journalistic endeavor to what Michael Hastings infamously reported for Rolling Stone.
The pieces of the article mentioning McChrystal and what his team was setting up in Afghanistan before his dismissal make it clear enough that McChrystal, at least, was pursuing a very specific “southern strategy” for Afghanistan. There doesn’t seem to be much disagreement among the military on what should be done in terms of operations there. Now, whether it will work or not is another question, of course.
But, the main point here is that McChrystal was active, hands-on and implementing an operational approach to the war prior to his demise by Rolling Stone. Here are some quotes from The Economist to illustrate.
McChrystal was setting up a major campaign in the south to be completed by 2011. “He minced no words in telling them ‘what would cause us to lose.’ And in a long interview, not short of self-criticism and uncertainty, he issued a daunting to-do list by the end of the year for southern Afghanistan, the Taliban’s heartland. ‘I think I’ll need to be able to say there’s clear progress, and in some places irreversible progress, in the Helmand river valley and hopefully Kandahar,’ he said.”
McChrystal’s operations were of McChrystal’s making. “But in Afghanistan General McChrystal will be much missed. With support from Mr Obama, who inherited (and publicly embraced) a losing cause from his predecessor, General McChrystal first rewrote the campaign plan. The effect was to refine the haphazard counter-insurgency efforts of his predecessors, who include Mr Eikenberry: for example, by replacing a forlorn hope of controlling all Afghanistan with a serious bid to secure the densely populated reaches of the south.
“This is still a daunting ambition. Kandahar and Helmand are the heartland of an insurgency that affects most of southern and eastern Afghanistan and an increasing portion of the north and west. A recent American survey of 120 insurgency-stricken districts (around a third of all districts) found that only a quarter of the population supported the government, and that over a third were sympathetic towards, or openly supported, the insurgents. To beat back the insurgency, the American troops now being deployed to the south will have to bring both security and a massive change of heart. This effort, concentrated in a summer offensive in Kandahar, is likely to determine the success of what is now General Petraeus’s mission.”
Just as he did in Iraq (see previous post), McChrystal was surgically eliminating key enemy leaders, effectively taking out their command and control infrastructure. “The coalition—a 46-nation mélange dominated by America, which will soon have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan—is meanwhile killing as many Taliban leaders as it can. American, British and other special-force soldiers are conducting over a dozen operations a night for this purpose—including one last month that accounted for Mullah Zergay, the Taliban ‘shadow’ governor of Kandahar. This is part of a wider NATO effort to use violence more discriminately, in particular by limiting the aerial bombing that has killed hundreds of Afghan civilians.”
A report on this operation can be found here. I might add there little to be found on this in the US media.
Perhaps such lack of objective military coverage while instead emphasising the political in-fighting among Obama-appointed officials is a key reason why the idea that “no progress” is being made in Afghanistan seems so legitimate. US journalists seem to approach the whole situation with Vietnam in the back of their minds, blurring their vision.
The strategy currently being implemented by US troops is exactly the same approach McChrystal applied in Iraq. Maybe there are sound reasons why what worked in Iraq won’t work in Afghanistan but I have yet to read any analysis that justifies such a contention. Meanwhile, the fact remains that McChrystal was, once again, kicking ass in southern Afghanistan.
The on-going special forces campaign is proceeding outside the periphery of the news cycle while coalition forces are also attempting to build rapport with the tribal leaders in the region. Most likely the campaign is a prerequisite for more traditional military operations later in the summer. (Perhaps the mainstream US media will pick up on the “big push” when it occurs.) Essentially, the idea seems to be to begin the delayed campaign after the special forces have maximized Taliban disorganization; but, according to the US media, the delay of the Kandahar operation is due to the alleged fact that no one is sure what our mission is there. Well, The Economist article at least makes it clear that McChrystal and his staff knew. My guess is that General Petraeus is pretty clear about it as well.
Meanwhile, the operation taking out Taliban leadership one or two at a time continues.
McChrystal was changing the nature of the war in Afghanistan, something that cannot happen quickly. A big part of that is the cultural aspects of McChrystal’s counter-insurgency approach. “In a well publicised assault in February on Marja, a Taliban-administered segment of the fertile and crowded Helmand river valley west of Kandahar, American troops took pains to get enemy wounded to hospital. Aid workers in Afghanistan, who have long been scornful of American blundering there, are full of praise for these measures. One senior figure describes the McChrystal makeover as ‘a change in military culture’.”
The Obama July 2011 deadline (which might best serve Obama’s own re-election cycle and which I criticized in an earlier post) was certainly a source of frustration for McChrystal. “There is almost no chance that Afghanistan will be transformed by the time of Mr Obama’s deadline. The insurgency is too robust. The government is too weak. Too much time has been lost. According to a senior NATO official, it takes on average 13 years to win a counter-insurgency campaign; and this campaign is, in effect, in year two.
“If General McChrystal’s plan is to be given a fair trial, the promised American withdrawal will therefore have to be remarkably gradual.”
These glimpses of McChrystal’s thinking and implementation obviously does not persuade The Economist that the war is being won. Far from it. “There is even less good news in nearby Marja. Before launching an airborne assault there in February, General McChrystal earmarked it as a testing-ground for his strategy. Once security was established there, he predicted, a ‘government-in-a-box’ could be swiftly unpacked in the town, delighting its 60,000 inhabitants. But American forces in Marja are now under nightly attack, locals have been beheaded by the Taliban for co-operating with them, and there is little government in evidence.”
The Economist points out that McChrystal has made some mistakes. Not the least of which has been with the implementation of his attempts to transform cultural impressions of the coalition through economic assistance. “At a meeting in Kandahar to discuss the unwanted effects of NATO contracts, General McChrystal was informed that 570 of them, worth millions of dollars, had been issued from NATO’s airbase in Kandahar, and nobody was quite sure to whom. The general consoled his aides: ‘We were in a hurry, we were ignorant, we created a business environment, and now it’s come back to hurt us.’”
By all accounts, McChrystal never made excuses, always took responsibility and knew the outcome of his best laid plans was without guarantees.
The Economist soberly concludes the article: “The situation is grim. To stand even a moderate chance of success, General McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy would require more time than American and European governments are prepared to give it. Instead, NATO countries, perhaps including a reluctant America, are increasingly concluding that there will have to be a negotiated end to the war. But the Taliban are in no rush to talk. Their position is strong. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for NATO’s current operations is to weaken the militants sufficiently to bring them to the table. That near-impossible task now falls to the impressive, persistent, but human General Petraeus.”
McChrystal is out but his policies and strategies are still in place. The important special forces component of his operational strategy is in the hands of various lower-level commanders who know what they are doing. Petraeus inherits a pretty good hand from the sound of things, even though things still look “grim” from The Economist’s perspective. Certainly, McChrystal’s strategy is no slam dunk. As The Economist points out, McChrystal himself was plagued by uncertainty at times.
Nevertheless, the idea that no progress was being made does not strike me as objective. To be sure, Petraeus faces a daunting task. But, he assumes command over a living strategy being effectively executed. Whether the political winds of the Obama administration or the indigenous tribal dynamics of the region allow the strategy to work was a gamble from the start.
Late Note: The Christian Science Monitor reported on the day after this post that according to an ISAF spokeman: "...about 130 'Taliban commanders and subcommanders' have been captured or killed in the past four months throughout the country, mostly in the south, the heartland of the Taliban." The article goes on to explain why General McChrystal's controversial rules of engagement, which are designed to restrain US and coalition use of force, particularly air strikes, were put into place to begin with. The article gives specific examples of how McChrystal's rules of engagement are integrating Afghan forces into the war effort and minimizing Afghan casualties - the number one recruitment tool of the Taliban is 'collateral damage' of Afghan women and children in coalition use of force. It will be interesting to see how much of this kind of stuff General Petraeus actually changes as he obtains a clearer perspective of the situation.
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