September 29, 2009

General McChrystal’s Afghan Plan

At least General Stanley McChrystal has one thing right: things in Afghanistan aren’t going so well. As he writes [.pdf] in his “Initial Assessment” of the war, which was leaked to the Washington Post last week: “the overall situation is deteriorating. We face not only a resilient and growing insurgency; there is also a crisis of confidence among Afghans—in both their government and the international community—that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents.”

This dire diagnosis notwithstanding, McChrystal contends that the situation can be reversed and the war still won. Doing so, he believes, will require more troops—if recent murmurings in the media are to be believed, as many as 45,000 more troops. More than just this, however, McChrystal believes that NATO must also implement a new strategy, one that focuses on winning over the Afghan people. Among other things, this means that Western forces must develop personal relationships with civilians, that they must learn to “show respect for local cultures and customs and demonstrate intellectual curiosity about the people of Afghanistan,” that they must “spend as much time as possible with the people and as little time as possible in armored vehicles or behind the walls of forward operating bases.”

Now I don’t claim to be a military strategist, but McChrystal’s plan seems obviously flawed. For how can an army win over a people when it is continually bombing it? Certainly American forces aren’t trying to kill civilians. In fact, they take many precautions not to. But modern warfare is a messy thing. Taliban fighters live and dwell among civilians, and therefore US battles against the Taliban inevitably produce headlines such as the following:

And let’s remember that the popularity of US troops among Afghans continues falling, going from 83% in 2005 to 65% in 2007 to only 47% in February of this year. And a full 25% of Afghans now believe that attacks on foreign fighters can be justified.

What all this seems to mean is that escalating the war is bound to further alienate the already antagonistic population. Troops can try their hardest to build relationships with locals, they can learn the language, “demonstrate an intellectual curiosity about the people,” etc., etc. But all this is bound to come to naught as long as dead bodies continue piling up. In the same way, America’s “pacification” program in Vietnam failed because, despite all the roads and bridges and hospitals that the military built, US munitions continued blowing apart innocent peasants.

Though claiming that he doesn’t “underestimate the enormous challenges in executing this new strategy,” McChrystal believes that “we have a key advantage: the majority of Afghans do not want a return of the Taliban.” Now most Afghans might not want the Taliban to return, but, given that the US hasn’t been able to replace Taliban rule with anything even slightly resembling a decent and competent government, it’s not clear why this is such a “key advantage.” McChrystal himself admits: “The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF’s own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government.” To understand what he’s getting at, consider a few more headlines:

“These problems,” he continues, “have alienated large segments of the Afghan population. They do not trust GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] to provide their essential needs, such as security, justice, and basic services. This crisis of confidence, coupled with a distinct lack of economic and educational opportunity, has created fertile ground for the insurgency.” For example:

But McChrystal claims that he can turn all this around. Of course, I’m not sure why anyone would believe him. After spending eight years and $223 billion dollars in Afghanistan, the US hasn’t been able to weaken, let alone defeat, the insurgency. And yet now we’re supposed to believe that McChrystal and his new strategy will somehow save the day? Needless to say, I can’t predict the future, and perhaps McChrystal will ultimately prove himself to be as brilliant as the kooks at the Foreign Policy Initiative believe. But the odds certainly don’t seem to be on his side. And given that his plan will cost billions, perhaps trillions, of additional taxpayer dollars, not to mention the lives of many more Afghan civilians and American troops, I don’t know why anyone would want to take the chance.

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