More than sixty nations will gather in London tomorrow for an important series of talks on the future of Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal, who heads US forces in Afghanistan, sat for an extended interview with the Financial Times in advance of the conference. His comments, when taken in total, amount to an admission that US strategy in Afghanistan has failed and yet he insists we must re-commit to this same failed strategy.
In a repeat of the Iraq surge strategy, President Obama’s extended review of Afghanistan strategy settled on the long-standing US reliance on counterinsurgency to reduce violence to a level that political reconciliation and government development take place. The recently leaked cables that Ambassador Eikenberry sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the strategy review show that he feels that President Karzai is not capable of leading a legitimate government and that little to no attention has been given to the near impossibility of achieving a Western-style central government in a region where such a thing has never existed.
In his interview with the Financial Times, McChrystal provided more evidence that US strategy in Afghanistan is failing. After an extended exchange with the interviewer to establish that one of the key features of the US strategy is to provide security for the government to take over, McChrystal then goes on to admit that the security situation is getting worse rather than better:
FT: I wonder if there is any specific thing that you would like to see come out (of London) that will be useful for your effort?
Gen McChrystal: There are some specific things that I hope that consensus is reached on. President Karzai is likely to announce his intent to implement a re-integration policy and then move forward to implementation, and I’m hopeful and very optimistic that the international community will completely back that. I believe that we will see proposed Afghan Afghan National Security Force target figures for 2011 for the next two years of growth. I’m hopeful that the international community will fall in behind those. There are some other development areas as well. But I think the over-arching thing is that after eight years of war, it’s clear that domestically many political leaders are having to answer questions, this has gone on a long time and it’s not better than it was in 2004, so why are we maintaining it, will it get better? In many ways it is better than 2004, but in security it is not. So what I will hope that we come out of there with is an understanding of what we have done in the last months, and how we have shaped the situation and postured ourselves to do in the next year that I believe will significantly improve the situation, and to give them a reason to have confidence that the path that our leadership has put us on is correct.
To repeat, the primary plan is to increase security and then support the development of a government that can take over the country as we leave. The problem is that we are going backwards on security and are essentially starting over, more than eight years into the effort.
Besides the fact that President Karzai is seen as illegitimate by much of the international community due to fraud surrounding the recent election and extensive corruption throughout his government, an additional problem is that he is opposed to the very actions McChrystal employs in his attempts to impose security. Here is McClatchy quoting a Karzai statement to Al Jazeera:
"We’re not going to ask for more cash. We’re going to ask the international community to end nighttime raids on Afghan homes, to stop arresting Afghans, to reduce and eliminate civilian casualties. We’re going to ask them not to have Afghan prisoners taken," Karzai told Al Jazeera television early in the month.
McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy relies on nighttime raids and arrests as a central feature for removing "dangerous" elements from the population, as noted even in the New York Times editorial endorsing him to head the US effort in Afghanistan:
Reducing that toll will require tighter and more strictly enforced rules of engagement. That applies not just to airstrikes but to the search and detention operations that General McChrystal wants to expand this year with the help of 21,000 additional troops that President Obama ordered sent to Afghanistan. Ground operations are less likely to go astray than airstrikes. But as happened far too many times in Iraq, they can sweep up innocent civilians and turn local people against the American presence.
Who could have predicted that operations known to "turn local people against the American presence" would do just that?
Returning to the Financial Times interview, McChrystal provides more evidence of just how muddled our efforts have become:
FT: The implication seems to be that although it’s not your job to negotiate with insurgents, or determine the shape of a future government, your personal feeling is that it may be the case that one day members of the Taliban are in Kabul, and there’s some sort of peaceful settlement, and that’s acceptable.
Gen McChrystal: As a soldier, my personal feeling is that there’s been enough fighting, and that what we need to do – all of us – is to do the fighting necessary to shape conditions where people can get on with their lives, and everybody can make a decision where fighting’s not the direction that it needs to go in. You just really don’t make progress, politically, during fighting. What I think we do is try to shape conditions which allow people to come to a truly equitable solution to how the Afghan people are governed.
What a mess. Although "there’s been enough fighting", we need to fight more. Although we need to shape the political landscape for a government to exist, the one that exists is illegitimate and during fighting, "you just don’t make progress, politically". Our stated strategy for bringing stability is alienating the population and the President. Our Ambassador sees the President as incapable of governing. Other than that, things are great.