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My reporting on the McChrystal Afghan assessment

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  • Shaun Waterman
    Please find below the text of my latest column for the International Relations and Security Network, ISN, the first of a two-parter on U.S. strategy in
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 1, 2009
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      Please find below the text of my latest column for the International Relations and Security Network, ISN, the first of a two-parter on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Part one was published today and the full article, complete with links to most of the source material, is available on the Web here:


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      Shaun Waterman
      Tel: 202 898 8081

      Costs of War: The Afghan Seeds of Demise

      The US military commander in Afghanistan is calling for a new strategy. Some critics say it may already be too late to rescue the faltering international nation-building effort there, Shaun Waterman writes for ISN Security Watch.

      By Shaun Waterman in Washington, DC for ISN Security Watch

      General Stanley McChrystal on Monday submitted his strategic assessment of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.

      "The situation [...] is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort," McChrystal said in a brief statement <http://www.nato.int/isaf/docu/pressreleases/2009/08/pr090831-652.html> from coalition forces headquarters.

      The assessment was being sent up the military chain of command, according to the statement. The document was extraordinarily closely held - even the congressional armed services committees were "unlikely" to get a copy, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters <http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iqyaFh_efr-brDq0rMLF1hkop0tgD9AE0DFG0> , according to the Associated Press, although lawmakers would be briefed on it.

      But an official familiar with the assessment told ISN Security Watch that many of its themes had been presaged in a set of guidelines <http://www.nato.int/isaf/docu/official_texts/counterinsurgency_guidance.pdf> the general published last week for his troops.

      The two documents had "similar themes," said the official, who is not authorized to talk to the media and asked for anonymity. "A lot of the things we will see [in the assessment] he is not waiting to implement [...] the changes you see [already on the ground] reflect what" Monday's assessment says.

      Last week's guidance told US troops to focus 95 percent of the time and energy on protecting and building relationships with the Afghan people. "Earn the support of the people and the war is won," wrote McChrystal, "regardless of how many militants are killed or captured."

      McChrystal said the supply of insurgent fighters was "effectively endless," and because killing them generally created new recruits from among their family and friends it was, on its own, an ineffective strategy.

      "This is part of the reason why eight years of individually successful kinetic actions [by the coalition military] have resulted in more violence," he explained.

      McChrystal pungently compared the conventional military response to insurgent attacks to that of "the bull that repeatedly charges a matador's cape - only to tire and eventually be defeated by a much weaker opponent."

      "I call it the death of a thousand cuts," former Afghan interior minister Ali Jalali told ISN Security Watch, praising McChrystal for being "on the right track" with his emphasis on protecting the population and improving governance in the war-battered country.

      But Jalali predicted that "things will get worse before they get better," noting that "we are paying for the mistakes of the last seven years" when critics say the Bush administration took its eye off the Afghan ball to invade Iraq and failed to commit enough resources to do anything but prolong defeat.

      "The real question is: Is it too late?" concluded Jalali, currently a distinguished professor at the US National Defense University.

      The anonymous official said one "dramatic shift from the past" was the importance McChrystal attached to partnership with the Afghan security forces. "The key is partnering, partnering, partnering [...] partnering all the way down to platoon level with the [Afghan National Army] which is bold, and distinctly new."

      The official said McChrystal was also already making progress on reducing civilian casualties from US and coalition military actions - which many see as key to any hearts-and-minds effort to win Afghans' support.

      "If civilians die in a firefight, it does not matter who shot them - we still failed to protect them from harm," say McChrystal's guidelines. Even "destroying a home or property jeopardizes the livelihood of an entire family - and creates more insurgents.

      "We sow the seeds of our own demise," the guidelines conclude.

      Other defense officials told ISN Security Watch that the issue of US and coalition troop levels in Afghanistan was not dealt with in the assessment and would be addressed separately.

      Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Bloomberg TV <http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4470> he had not yet seen the final version of the assessment, and that he expected a draft he had seen "weeks ago" to have been "changed quite a bit."

      He said that one of the issues he had directed McChrystal to consider in the assessment was the possible downside to an increasing number of coalition troops in Afghanistan, whose population has militarily defeated generations of foreigners seen as occupiers or invaders.

      "One of the questions I asked him to address in the assessment," said Gates <http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4470> , "was the implications of significant additional forces in terms of the foreign footprint in Afghanistan, whether the Afghans will see this as us becoming more of an occupier or their partner and how do you differentiate those and how do you make sure you don't lose their confidence in us as their partner."

      Gates added he also told McChrystal to consider "What are the implications with respect to Americanization of the war," of a big increase in US troop numbers. "I am confident he's going to address both of those in the assessment and we'll take a look at it," he concluded.

      The delay in producing the expected recommendations for an increase in troop levels gives everyone involved the chance to ponder the variables of what is sure to become a hot button issue in the US - whatever the request from McChrystal might be and however Washington might respond.

      "We all need to look at the assessment and see how he thinks things are going, what things are needed and then we will turn our attention to whatever resource requirements he's put forward," said Gates, who was in Texas touring a Lockheed Martin plant that makes fighter jets.

      Crucially shaping any debate over troop levels and future strategy more broadly are perceptions of public opinion, both in the US and among its coalition partners. "If the patience of the international community runs out, that will be fatal," said Jalali.

      In the US, a recent opinion poll <http://abcnews.go.com/images/PollingUnit/1093a2Afghanistan.pdf> by the Washington Post and ABC News revealed that - for the first time - a bare majority of Americans, 51 percent, with a 3.5 percent error rate, believe the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting. More than a third, 36 percent, believes the US is losing the war there, and only 42 percent believe the US is winning.

      Since Barack Obama became president in January and authorized the dispatch of 20,000 new troops to Afghanistan, there has been a marked fall-off in support for boosting US troop numbers further. Less than a quarter of Americans, 24 percent, backed further deployments, down from a third in January.

      By contrast, support for decreasing US forces grew from 29 percent in January to 45 percent now.

      Some commentators draw on data like this to suggest that a political window of opportunity may be closing, as American tolerance for growing casualties in a second war theater is exhausted.

      But the headline figures, as the poll's authors point out, mask the fact that these changes in opinion "have occurred notably among liberal Democrats, whose view that the war is worth fighting has been cut in half since March, and whose support for reducing US forces there nearly has doubled."

      But these same democrats remain loyal to Obama, which explains why his approval ratings on the Afghanistan issue remain at 60 percent.

      Anti-war campaigner Cindy Sheehan appears to recognize this. "Sadly, the 'antiwar movement' wasn't so much antiwar, as anti-Bush - and not many people are willing to compromise politics to help the people who are tragically and unnecessarily dying" in Afghanistan, she said, according to the Washington Times on Monday.

      There is no question that the administration faces a tough job, not just winning the war in Afghanistan, but in winning the argument at home. But the window of opportunity will be open longer than some seem to think.


      Shaun Waterman is a senior writer and analyst for ISN Security Watch. He is a UK journalist based in Washington, DC, covering homeland and national security.

      Editor's note:

      Shaun Waterman's Costs of War column appears every Tuesday. You can read past editions at http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Current-Affairs/Security-Watch/Correspondent/?id=105361

      This piece is the first of a two-part series. In the second part: flawed elections and flawed thinking - the critique of counter-insurgency and nation-building in Afghanistan.

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