Wednesday, June 23, 2010

General McChrystal is gone, but the dilemma remains

I've written before about the dilemma facing the USA and its allies in Afghanistan (there are five separate links there). It's basically a conflict that cannot be won militarily. Countless invaders over the past several thousand years have tried to impose their will, and their culture, on the tribes of Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier. All have failed.

Max Hastings, a British war correspondent (one of the most experienced in the world), had this to say about today's dismissal by President Obama of General McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, following comments he made about the administration.

It is hard to overstate the seriousness of [General] McChrystal’s fall for Nato in Afghanistan, even though his successor General David Petraeus is an outstanding officer.

A leading British policy-maker told me yesterday: ‘This is a tragedy, a major setback for the West.’

McChrystal was the architect of the new, post-U.S. troop surge strategy for the country. He commanded immense respect, and was the only senior American to enjoy a good working relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

What he has been trying to do represents the West’s last, best shot at stabilising the country.

The general’s outburst thrusts to front stage all the tensions, jealousies and rancour that poison allied command relationships.

In explaining the mess, we had better start with President Obama. He inherited the war from George Bush.

He has always been sceptical about whether it is winnable, and anguished for three months last year — to McChrystal’s now acknowledged fury — about whether to authorise reinforcements.

In the end, he agreed to send more men, because he feared the wrath of the American Right if he was seen to be the U.S. leader who ‘lost Afghanistan’.

But he imposed a tight timeframe, saying that U. S. troops would start to pull out in July 2011.

According to the soldiers, this was a huge mistake. It never looked likely that McChrystal’s forces could grip the country so quickly.

The consequence of the cut-off date is that everyone in Afghanistan, from President Hamid Karzai downwards, is looking past the Westerners’ shoulders to their own future after next year.

They see the American public increasingly war-weary and dismayed by the loss of more than a thousand of their own dead. Afghans may not like the Taliban, but they back winners.

They are reluctant to bet the ranch — or rather their own lives — on offering support to Western forces, when a couple of years from now the Taliban may be calling the shots in their valleys.

A British officer told me recently that when the history of the war is written, he thought that almost everything we did in Helmand between 2006 and last winter ‘will be described in the same breath as the Charge of The Light Brigade’.

He went on to suggest we are getting policy right and making some progress.

But even if this is true, the patience of the Western nations with Afghanistan is running out more quickly than an acceptable outcome is approaching.

. . .

Things get worse when we mention Pakistan. The chief reason for the Nato troop commitment next door is not to stop Al Qaeda attacks in the West — Osama Bin Laden has no significant presence there.

It is because Pakistan stands on the brink of implosion.

There are fears that if Afghanistan lapses into anarchy, Pakistan will tip over the edge.

But the tortured politics of Pakistan causes its leaders and soldiers to play a double game.

The powerful ISI intelligence branch of the army backs the Taliban.

The country’s leader, Asif Zardari, one of the most notoriously corrupt figures in the region, professes a willingness to work with the West to fight terrorism.

But U.S. intelligence sources say Zardari recently met some Taliban representatives and assured them of his goodwill.

The dominant Pakistani public mood is strongly anti-Western. Truly, helping Pakistan is tough for the West.

British and American soldiers in Afghanistan are doing their jobs as courageously and professionally as ever.

The two British generals there, Nick Parker and Nick Carter, are probably the best the Army has ever deployed. But many policy-makers are despondent.

An American military friend of mine emailed me this week: ‘If President Karzai would work even as hard as a single 2nd lieutenant, then I’d say we have a chance. But he won’t.

‘To build responsible governance would mean creating rivals for power, and he won’t allow that. It’s 1967 all over again, though the names have changed.’

. . .

The choice of Petraeus to succeed McChrystal means that the U.S. is dispatching the finest American soldier of his generation, until now McChrystal’s boss at Central Command in Florida, to restore shattered confidence in Kabul.

. . .

Petraeus is undoubtedly a cleverer man than McChrystal.

But it would be rash to assume that even he can overcome the huge problems in Afghanistan.

The damage to Western prestige from McChrystal’s fall remains immense.

All the policy-makers whom I respect say the only way forward in Afghanistan is to seek a political settlement that must include the Taliban.

Military victory is wholly unattainable.

There's more at the link. Highly recommended reading. Mr. Hastings knows whereof he speaks.

Let me repeat Mr. Hastings' last words in the extract above.

Military victory is wholly unattainable.

That's the plain and simple truth in Afghanistan. There is literally no way in which the USA can bring about military victory, forcing the enemy to lay down his arms. No previous invader or occupier of Afghanistan has ever been able to do so. Those that thought they had, found insurrection and rebellion breaking out afresh as soon as their backs were turned. We won't be able to do any better. It's just not going to happen.

That being the case . . . what's Plan B? If there isn't one, why not?

I hope and pray General Petraeus (for whom I have enormous respect, given his accomplishments in Iraq) and his staff can learn from history, and find a way through the labyrinth that confronts them (and us) in that tortured country. One thing's for sure - it won't be a purely military way. There isn't one. All of the history of Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier teaches us that. I wouldn't bet a brass farthing that the US can succeed where everyone from Alexander the Great, to the British Raj, to the might of the Soviet Union at its height, failed so miserably.



Old NFO said...

Excellent post Peter, and dead on the money... McChrystal is now the fall guy, plain and simple. This is, I believe, an intended consequence of the administration NOT backing the military plans/presence in theater...

It also serves to get Gen Patraeus out of town at a critical time (upcoming elections) so he can't be persuaded to retire and run for Congress.

Cybrludite said...

I'm certain that the folks in the "Five-Sided-Funny-Farm" have plans B through ZZZ drawn up. No doubt whatsoever. The question is if the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania has the huevos to actually put any of those plans into action...

Anonymous said...

McChrystal's wound was self-inflicted. The only question: was it intentional?

Feels more like Vietnam redux every day.


Anonymous said...

My question is if Gen. McChrystal could not control his staff or his own mouth, how could he control the the country side?

Special Operations tends to be free floating with their command than the Big Army. But allowing disrespect of the chain of command and your allies in public can't be allowed.

What would be victory in AFPAK?


The Raving Prophet said...

It appears that our error was in being more concerned about trying to form a democratic representative government in a part of the world that is still incredibly tribal and lawless.

I think we'd have been better off telling the Taliban "We want Bin Laden's head (along with that of the rest of Al-Qaeda's leadership) on a platter and we'll go away. We aren't interested in running your nation, but we can bounce all the rubble if you refuse."

Jerry said...

Yep, military victory is unobtainable.

The grandfathers of today's Taliban were fighting my Grandad (Essex Regiment) on the Khyber Pass in the 1920's, just like their grandfather's grandfathers had been fighting outsiders for the past 1,000 years.

Crucis said...

The statement, "Military victory is wholly unattainable," is completely false---if the originally requested resources are provided. As it is, the effort is being nickel 'n dimed towards failure.

We have the ability to completely remove the Taliban from Afghanistan and probably from Pakistan as well. We haven't because the left has blocked those efforts at every opportunity. Like Vietnam, we're being betrayed by the democrats for their political gain.

outsideofapex said...

GWB's error was entering two faraway wars with no exit strategy, unlike Bush the first (although I have always suspected that GWB invaded Iraq to get Saddam because his daddy didn't).

Get in with clear objectives, obtain them, and get out. We could hardly afford these two wars when the economy was good and now that it has tanked ...