Apparently not. Unlike Douglas MacArthur, Stanley McChrystal has tendered his resignation. President Obama should accept it, and move swiftly to put this unfortunate incident behind him.
This story moved so quickly that I wasn’t able to keep up. In the early morning, we learned that McChrystal had been called to Washington for face‐to‐face meetings with President Obama (aka The Commander in Chief), and Robert Gates (the SecDef who has built a reputation for sacking generals). McChrystal’s press aide was fired. By early afternoon, others, including those sympathetic to the general, were predicting that he would step down, or that he should be fired if he did not (Eliot Cohen “This is a firing offense”; Peter Feaver “This is clearly a firing offense”).
I won’t repeat what Justin Logan, Malou Innocent, and I said in our statements this morning. It is obvious that Gen. McChrystal showed very poor judgment, and this is not the first time. When his assessment of what was required in Afghanistan (More Forces or “Mission Failure”) was leaked before the president had settled on a strategy, the White House was furious. They felt that he was trying to bully them. Strike one. When he challenged the chain of command with his remarks in London in October, dismissing Vice President’s Biden’s preferred counterterrorism approach as “shortsighted,” Obama summoned him for a private meeting on Air Force One. Strike two. There was more than enough material in the Rolling Stone story to constitute strike three. And four, five, and six.
I urge people to read the story. It might be remembered as the article that put an end to Stanley McChrystal’s storied career. I wonder if the article might serve a broader purpose: undermining the already wavering support for COIN. Look past McChrystal, a man who has given his life to the military, and has much to show for it. Look at the enlisted guys who are just beginning their careers, or the NCOs or junior officers who are in the third or fourth tours (in either Iraq or Afghanistan). They’re growing frustrated. They’re in an impossible situation. They are fighting a war that depends upon strong support here in the United States, and that aims to boost support for a government that no one believes in. And while they understand COIN as preached by McChrystal, they struggle with the rules of engagement that COIN requires.
One soldier shows me the list of new regulations the platoon was given. “Patrol only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourselves with lethal force,” the laminated card reads. For a soldier who has traveled halfway around the world to fight, that’s like telling a cop he should only patrol in areas where he knows he won’t have to make arrests. “Does that make any [expletive] sense?” asks Pfc. Jared Pautsch. “We should just drop a [expletive] bomb on this place. You sit and ask yourself: What are we doing here?”
I give up. What are we doing there?
Former Marine captain Matthew Hoh became the first U.S. official known to resign in protest over the Afghan war. His letter of resignation echoes some arguments I have made earlier this year, namely, that what we are witnessing is a local and regional ethnic Pashtun population fighting against what they perceive to be a foreign occupation of their region; that our current strategy does not answer why and to what end we are pursuing this war; and that Afghanistan holds little intrinsic strategic value to the security of the United States.
In his own words:
The Pashtun insurgency, which is composed of multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups, is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non‐Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified….I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul. The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategy message of the Pashtun insurgency.
Click here to read the entire letter.
So, what’s the situations like now? Afghanistan’s second‐round presidential elections scheduled for early November will do little to change realities on the ground. Counterinsurgency – the U.S. military’s present strategy – requires a legitimate host nation government, which we will not see for the foreseeable future regardless of who’s president.
What’s the political strategy? President Obama has painted himself into a rhetorical corner. He’s called Afghanistan the “necessary war,” even though stabilizing Afghanistan is not a precondition for keeping America safe. We must remember that al Qaeda is a global network, so in the unlikely event that America did bring security to Afghanistan, al Qaeda could reposition its presence into other regions of the world.
Should we stay or should we go? The United States must begin to narrow its objectives. If we begin to broaden the number of enemies to include indigenous insurgent groups, we could see U.S. troops fighting in perpetuity. The president has surged once into the region this year. He does not need to do so again.
This is the deadliest month so far, thoughts? Eight years after the fall of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan still struggles to survive under the most brutal circumstances: corrupt and ineffective state institutions; thousands of miles of unguarded borders; pervasive illiteracy among a largely rural and decentralized population; a weak president; and a dysfunctional international alliance. As if that weren’t enough, some of Afghanistan’s neighbors have incentives to foment instability there. An infusion of 40,000 more troops, as advocated by General Stanley McChrystal, may lead to a reduction in violence in the medium‐term. But the elephant in the Pentagon is that the intractable cross‐border insurgency will likely outlive the presence of international troops. Honestly, Afghanistan is not a winnable war by any stretch of the imagination.
There is a useful math lesson buried near the end of Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung’s widely discussed story on an Afghan war game that the Obama administration is using to weigh the costs and risks of competing strategies.
One question being debated is whether more U.S. troops would improve the performance of the Afghan government by providing an important check on corruption and the drug trade, or would they stunt the growth of the Afghan government as U.S. troops and civilians take on more tasks that Afghans might better perform themselves. Another factor is cost. The Pentagon has budgeted about $65 billion to maintain a force of about 68,000 troops, meaning that each additional 1,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan would cost about $1 billion a year.
I haven’t seen this figure before, and it is based upon a back‐of‐the‐envelope calculation that might be undone by economies of scale. It is not obvious, for example, that the first 1,000 troops would cost the same as the last 1,000. Still, it is a reasonable estimate that is apparently being used inside of the Obama administration.
Accepting the number as basically accurate, the question then turns to “Is it worth it?” That can only be answered by weighing the opportunity costs.
If the Obama administration goes along with Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for more troops, and therefore chooses to spend additional money on this mission, the administration is saying, in effect, that an expanded troop presence will do more to prevent a repeat of 9/11 than if the money had been spent on countless other missions and programs ostensibly directed to the same purpose.
Count me a skeptic. There is considerable evidence that a large‐scale and open‐ended troop presence is counterproductive to fighting terrorism. Meanwhile, there have been a number of highly effective counterterrorism programs that cost far, far less than even $1 billion a year. The proponents of a huge troop increase in Afghanistan obviously disagree, and thus implicitly claim that $40 billion is money well spent (for reference, the entire Dept. of Homeland Security budget for FY 2010 will total $42.8 billion).
Let the advocates for a larger troop presence attempt to make that case. At least now we have a tangible measure for weighing competing options. Thanks to Jaffe and DeYoung for shedding some light on a previously under‐reported statistic.
A. It’s encouraging to see Rahm Emanuel and John Kerry saying that we shouldn’t up force levels in Afghanistan without a reliable partner. But if we shouldn’t send 40,000 more troops to prop up a crooked government, why keep the 68,000 we have there? A focused counter‐terrorism mission would require far less than that.
B. According to Dexter Filkins’ article in the New York Times Magazine, the war in Iraq taught General Stanley McChrystal the following:
No situation, no matter how dire, is ever irredeemable — if you have the time, resources and the correct strategy. In the spring of 2006, Iraq seemed lost. The dead were piling up. The society was disintegrating. One possible conclusion was that it was time for the United States to cut its losses in a country that it never truly understood. But the American military believed it had found a strategy that worked, and it hung in there, and it finally turned the tide.
What’s interesting about this claim is its utter confidence in the potential efficacy of US military power — it is not just necessary to solving Iraq’s problems, but sufficient. If this view is right, Iraqis themselves, and their civil war, were unnecessary to the limited political reconciliation that occurred there.
Filkins, surprisingly, seems to agree, depicting the evolution of the war this way:
For four years, the American military had tried to crush the Iraqi insurgency and got the opposite: the insurgency bloomed, and the country imploded. By refocusing their efforts on protecting Iraqi civilians, American troops were able to cut off the insurgents from their base of support. Then the Americans struck peace deals with tens of thousands of former fighters — the phenomenon known as the Sunni Awakening — while at the same time fashioning a formidable Iraqi army. After a bloody first push, violence in Iraq dropped to its lowest levels since the war began.
Note the use of the word “then” preceding the sentence about peace deals. It carries a heavy load. Filkins wants to say that the hearts and mind theory of counterinsurgency caused the Anbar Awakening. But he offers no real causal story about how they are connected; he just says that one happened and then the other.
Another view, one that leaves Iraqis some agency, is that the growth of the al Qaeda Iraq and the progress of the civil war changed the Sunni insurgents’ strategic calculus, such that they decided to cooperate with Americans to gain locally. And that in turn, limited violence. U.S. forces had a role in this — the covert killing campaign that McChrystal led and Filkins chronicles probably pressured insurgents and weakened AQI, for one. But the deals — the awakening — began well before the troop surge and before David Petraeus took command and tried to implement a new counterinsurgency doctrine. The key American decision was willingness to play ball with insurgent groups. This decision had little to do with winning hearts and minds via population security and increased troop levels. And by empowering forces at odds with the central government, it contradicted the goal of state‐building in Iraq, at least in the short‐term.
I obviously agree with the latter view. Our dependence on local politics limits what we can accomplish in counterinsurgency. We can certainly affect what happens in Afghanistan, but it is hubris to think we control it.
Filkins also quotes McChrystal on Afghanistan’s effect on Pakistan:
“If we are good here, it will have a good effect on Pakistan,” he told me. “But if we fail here, Pakistan will not be able to solve their problems — it would be like burning leaves on a windy day next door.
It’s sensible to conclude chaos nearby is unhelpful to stability in Pakistan, but it goes way too far to say that Afghanistan’s stability is necessary to Pakistan’s, which has been fairly stable for long periods while Afghanistan was not. What’s more, as Robert Pape argues, it is likely that U.S. forces are a cause of insurgency in both countries.
In his review of the war in Afghanistan, states that “failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near‐term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”
I would hope that Congress and the American people hold McChrystal to his “12 month” prediction, because if President Obama sticks to McChrystal’s ambitious strategy, U.S. forces could remain in Central Asia for decades.
McChrystal argues that the U.S. military must devote more effort to interacting with the local population and elevating the importance of governance. How? Does America defeat the Taliban in order to build an Afghan state, or does America build an Afghan state in order to defeat the Taliban? Winning the support of the population through a substantial investment in civilian reconstruction cannot take place without some semblance of stability on the ground. The mission’s multi‐disciplinary approach (“an integrated civilian‐military counterinsurgency campaign”) is understandable, but oftentimes its feasibility is simply assumed.
Unfortunately, the United States has drifted into an amorphous nation building mission with unlimited scope and unlimited duration. Our objective must be narrowed to disrupting al Qaeda. To accomplish that goal, America does not need to transform Afghanistan into a stable, modern, democratic society with a strong central government in Kabul — or forcibly democratize the country, as our current mission would have us do, or as McChrystal states “Elevat[ing] the importance of governance.” These goals cannot be achieved at a reasonable cost in blood and treasure in a reasonable amount of time — let alone the next 12 months.
The United States is going to cut back on airstrikes in Afghanistan, according to the new commander there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. This decision comes on the heels of Central Command’s release (late on a Friday afternoon) of the executive summary of a report on the killing of dozens — at least — of civilians in Farah Province in Western Afghanistan. On May 4, a B‑1B providing air support to US and Afghan forces there bombed some buildings, thinking that they contained insurgents. The buildings were apparently full of civilians.
Everyone seems to think this is a wise policy shift. The center of gravity in an insurgency, we’re often told, is the population. You need their support to find and defeat insurgents. Killing people undermines their support for the occupier and the government. You often hear the same thing about airstrikes in Pakistan.
This is a sensible argument, but it has some problems. For one, empirics to support it are hard to come by. Second, it isn’t obvious that people cooperate with occupiers or governments because they like them. Support may come instead from the mix of incentives — coercive and economic — that the population faces. The power to reward and punish behavior probably matters more in generating cooperation than feelings of loyalty, although they are not mutually exclusive.
You might respond that it is simply immoral to kill innocent people, whatever the strategic effects. That takes us to the real trouble with the critique of airstrikes, which is the idea that you can fight clean wars.
The accidental killing of Afghan civilians is a tragedy we should limit (one way to do so might be to simply stop using bombers for close air support). It is also an inevitable consequence of fighting a war in Afghanistan. Troops are going to use plentiful and occasionally indiscriminate firepower to defend themselves. This problem can be mitigated but not solved. You should not support the war in Afghanistan if you cannot support killing innocent people in prosecuting it. As Harvey Sapolsky (my professor at MIT) points out on his new blog, the allies killed 50,000 French civilians in the course of liberating France in World War II. Today precision munitions save many civilians, but, along with euphemistic words like state‐building, they threaten to delude us into thinking that we can fight antiseptic wars that adhere to liberal norms. (The situation is even worse in Germany, where they are arguing about whether to call what they are doing in Afghanistan a war).
As Sapolsky puts it:
Air power is our advantage, especially in a country where our forces are spread thin and the distances are large. Precautions have limited greatly the number of weapons dropped and how air power is employed. But only a little deception apparently is needed to put this advantage in jeopardy. Soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan. If there is no will to inflict casualties then there should be no will in absorbing them. Try as we may to avoid it, war kills the innocent.
For the source of this post’s title see the first article (pdf) here.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded special operations forces in Iraq and this month became the commander of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, said he wants to avoid more civilian deaths.
Concern over civilian casualties makes sense in counterinsurgency, since the local population is the strategic center of gravity. I'll concede that the infusion of 21,000 more troops — which Obama approved within his first 100 days in office — may lead to a reduction in violence in the medium-term. But the elephant in the Pentagon is that the intractable cross-border insurgency will likely outlive the presence of international troops. Honestly, Afghanistan is not a winnable war by any stretch of the imagination.
Certainly in Logar province, where the Taliban have set up a parallel judiciary, I can understand why McChrystal wants to step into voids not filled by the central government. But time and again, Afghans across the political spectrum — including President Hamid Karzai, Finance Minister Anwarulhaq Ahadisaid, Afghan security personnel, and even Afghanistan's ambassador to Washington — blame the United States for allowing corruption in the Afghan government and repeatedly deny responsibility for their government's own incompetence. Preventing militants from collecting taxes, enforcing order, and providing basic services means more than simply building up "indigenous capacity" — rather, we, the United States of America, according to those who advocate an indefinite military presence, must spend money we don't have to be Afghanistan's perpetual crutch.
McChrystal says he hopes to see an improvement on the ground in another 18 to 24 months. I hope Congress and the president hold him to his word, because if it were up to the military, we would remain in Central Asia for another 12 to 15 years. To win Afghan hearts and minds, America not only has to compete with the Taliban's shadow government, but also with an amalgamation of mullahs and warlords who have usurped the power of indigenous tribal chiefs in the country's restive southern and eastern provinces, particularly in Kandahar, the heart of "Taliban country." Such a strategy is the epitome of social engineering.
Afghanistan's 33 million people hail from more than 20 diverse cultures, including Uzbek, Tajik, Baloch, Turkman, Pashai, Nuristani, and others. Many of these ethnic groups have different tribal policies. Most Afghans are Sunni, but some, like the Hazara, are Shia. But the Taliban insurgency that we — not the Afghans — are combating, is dominated by the "rulers of the country," its largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. In actuality, "Pashtun" refers to the more than 50 tribes within the Pashtun people, (including Ghilzai, Durrani, Wazirs, Afridis, and dozens more) concentrated in southern and eastern Afghanistan and along the border in northwest Pakistan. Each Pashtun tribe is divided into various sub-tribes or clans (there are estimated to be 30 clans in the Mehsud tribe alone). Each clan is then divided into sections that split into extended families.