empty box
Here’s the box, where’s the government? (photo: z287marc)

General Stanley McChrystal’s now infamous "We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in" claim at the beginning of the Marjeh offensive has now proven to be false. Competing narratives seem to be emerging on whether McChrystal is to blame for making an overly optimistic claim or the Afghan government is to blame for being unable to live up to its obligations under the plan.

While it should come as no surprise that McChrystal should be blamed for making such an outrageous claim, what is unexpected is that some of that blame is actually coming from the Pentagon. Here is David Ignatius on Sunday:

Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s boast in February that "We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in" to Marja now sounds wildly over-optimistic. A senior military official concedes that this phrase "created an expectation of rapidity and efficiency that doesn’t exist now."

The New York Times noted Monday that last year’s "tough approach" to a visit from Afghan President Hamid Karzai only resulted in making him "more resentful and resistant", and so the current visit instead is more of a charm offensive from the US. Yet, despite that friendlier approach overall, the article quotes Brian Katulis (Center for American Progress, i.e. veal pen):

For instance, American officials coined the “government in a box” idea for an Afghan government that would be ready to roll into the former Taliban stronghold of Marja once American troops cleared out the insurgents. But once that military operation was completed, Mr. Katulis noted, “there wasn’t much inside the box,” referring to the slow pace of the civilian effort in Afghanistan.

So here we have the veal pen apparently speaking up to point out that the Afghans had nothing to put into the box, but saying so from the standpoint of assuming that the military operation was completed. This would appear to be an attempt to protect McChrystal. However, if we go back to Ignatius, we see that the very next paragraph in his column continues the quote from his military source, saying that control of the Marjeh area was not in fact achieved:

The official Pentagon line, after a White House review Thursday, is that there’s "slow but steady progress" in Afghanistan. But the senior military official cautions that 90 days after the offensive, "Marja is a mixed bag," with parts of the area still controlled by the Taliban and Afghan government performance spotty. A top State Department official agrees: "Transfer is not happening" in Marja.

Gareth Porter, also referring to the Ignatius column, looked at the upcoming offensive in Kandahar:

The outlook at the Pentagon and the White House on the nascent Kandahar offensive is also pessimistic, judging from the comment to Ignatius by an unnamed "senior administration official". The official told Ignatius the operation is "still a work in progress", observing that McChrystal’s command was still trying to decide how much of the local government the military could "salvage" and how much "you have to rebuild".

That is an obvious reference to the dilemma faced by the U.S. military in Kandahar: the entire government structure is controlled by Ahmed Wali Karzai, the much-despised brother of President Hamid Karzai. The U.S.-supported provincial governor now being counted on to introduce governance reforms, on the other hand, is generally regarded by Kandaharis as powerless, as Jonathan Partlow reported in the Washington Post Apr. 29.

So, we now know that our forces were unable to completely clear the sparsely populated Marjeh area and that the Afghans would have been unable to provide an effective government even if we had done so. Now, we are in the opening stages of an offensive in the much more heavily populated Kandahar region, where the government is dominated by the highly corrupt brother of the President and the US-backed puppet is ignored by the populace. What could possibly go wrong?

McChrystal’s response to the inevitable fiasco is to drop his expectations, but only a bit, according to Porter:

McChrystal appears to have responded to the setbacks he has encountered in Helmand and Kandahar by setting aside his most ambitious counterinsurgency aim: the creation of a large zone of control covering both provinces. In late January, an official working for McChrystal at the ISAF told IPS, "The first thing you’ll see is an effort to establish a contiguous security zone in Helmand and Kandahar accounting for 85 percent of the economic resources."

Maybe the General needs a bigger box…