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McChrystal’s Box Was Empty: Blame Game Begins

6:10 am in Foreign Policy, Government, Military by Jim White

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…

UN Refuses to Participate in “Militarization of Humanitarian Aid” in Marjeh Reconstruction

6:32 am in Uncategorized by Jim White

Marjeh meeting
ISAF Public Affairs photo

The New York Times just reported that the UN will not participate in the reconstruction of Marjeh because of what it sees as the "militarization of humanitarian aid" that is a central feature of General Stanley McChrystal’s "government in a box" plan for the area:

Senior United Nations officials in Afghanistan on Wednesday criticized NATO forces for what one referred to as “the militarization of humanitarian aid,” and said United Nations agencies would not participate in the military’s reconstruction strategy in Marja as part of its current offensive there.

“We are not part of that process, we do not want to be part of it,” said Robert Watkins, the deputy special representative of the secretary general, at a news conference attended by other officials to announce the United Nations’ Humanitarian Action Plan for 2010. “We will not be part of that military strategy.”

The American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has made the rapid delivery of governmental services, including education, health care and job programs, a central part of his strategy in Marja, referring to plans to rapidly deploy what he has referred to as “a government in a box” once Marja is pacified.

The Times article also provides a link to this (pdf) joint report by actionaid, Afghanaid, CARE Afghanistan, christian aid, CONCERN Worldwide, Oxfam International and Trocaire, titled "Quick Impact, Quick Collapse: The Dangers of Militarized Aid in Afghanistan". The report states:

As political pressures to “show results” in troop contributing countries intensify, more and more assistance is being channelled through military actors to “win hearts and minds” while efforts to address the underlying causes of poverty and repair the destruction wrought by three decades of conflict and disorder are being sidelined. Development projects implemented with military money or through military-dominated structures aim to achieve fast results but are often poorly executed, inappropriate and do not have sufficient community involvement to make them sustainable. There is little evidence this approach is generating stability and, in some cases, military involvement in development activities is, paradoxically, putting Afghan lives further at risk as these projects quickly become targeted by anti-government elements.


Part of the problem is that the militarized aid approach focuses not on alleviating poverty but on winning the loyalty of Afghans through the provision of aid. In “Commanders’ Guide to Money as a Weapons System,” a US army manual for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, aid is defined as “a nonlethal weapon” that is utilized to “win the hearts and minds of the indigenous population to facilitate defeating the insurgents.”

Rather than just leveling criticism, the report goes on to outline an approach that the aid groups believe has a better chance of delivering real assistance to the Afghan people:

There are no quick fixes in Afghanistan. The militarized aid approach is not working for Afghans, and more of the same is unlikely to yield different results. The unrealistic goal of achieving dramatic, demonstrable development results within the next year has led to a continued emphasis on short-term projects and the same short sightedness that has plagued the international aid effort in Afghanistan since 2001.

The overemphasis on military issues at the expense of efforts to promote genuine development and good government matters not only because of the resulting human cost, but also because poverty, unemployment and weak, corrupt government are important drivers of conflict. Ultimately, these factors must be effectively addressed if there is to be any sustainable improvement in security and a lasting peace for Afghans.

The report then lists details of the approach that the aid groups feel will lead to effective relief.

The photograph at the top of the page is from the ISAF Public Affairs Flickr feed. The ISAF-supplied caption reads:

Operation Moshtarak is an Afghan-led initiative to assert government authority in the centre of Helmand province. Afghan and ISAF partners are engaging in this counter- insurgency operation at the request of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Helmand provincial government.

The date of the upload is February 17. The photo brings to mind this Reuters report on the "Human Terrain Team" accompanying the forces:

U.S. military officials say shooting their way to victory will not lead to peace in Afghanistan, and winning the cooperation of Afghan civilians is their most effective weapon.

Kristin Post, a social scientist working for a Department of Defense "Human Terrain Team," is about 12 km (8 miles) south of Marjah, and she is looking forward to going into the town, alongside a battalion of Marines, and talking to its residents.


Post and her team leader John Foldberg work with the Marines before, during and after operations to understand Afghans stuck between insurgents and advancing foreign troops.

"The population is the prize, it’s the center of gravity," said Foldberg, a retired Marine.

"Our job is to get out and interview the local population, the elders, the mullahs, the men and women on the street."

I suspect that the photo is from just such a meeting. It appears that the UN and the aid groups on the ground in Afghanistan reject this approach as rushed, ineffective and overly reliant on military support. Only time will tell if this addition of the "Human Terrain Teams" will improve on the current poor record of NATO efforts in Afghanistan humanitarian aid. However, given the cautions from the report, since these teams are from DOD, the prospects are not good.

Groundhog Day in Helmand Province, Afghanistan

7:07 am in Uncategorized by Jim White

Operation Mushtarak appears to be getting underway in an effort to retake Marjeh in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. But it seems like we’ve seen this movie before. Here is a flashback to July, 2008:

GARMSIR, AFGHANISTAN—At this spartan combat outpost in the heart of Helmand province, U.S. marines are preparing for what may be their toughest fight yet. Under the cover of darkness, they will push out to take up positions for a battle that they hope will break up a key Taliban stronghold in what is currently one of the most dangerous regions in the country.


Here, they are not so sure. They have watched British colleagues fight to retake from the Taliban some of the same hills where old British forts from colonial-era campaigns in the 1800s still stand. Since 2006, control of this town has changed hands three times.

Emphasis added.

So, our success in retaking Garmsir in 2008 marked the fourth time it changed hands in only two years. And yet, here is AFP on the beginning of the action at Marjeh:

Thousands of US Marines and NATO and Afghan soldiers have massed around the town of Marjah, a Taliban bastion in Helmand province, poised to launch one of the biggest operations against the Taliban since the 2001 US-led invasion.

Now take a look at this map, generated by Google Maps, showing both Garmsir (marked by red "A" pin) and Marjeh (marked by purple pin):

Garmsir, Marjeh map

From the attached scale, it appears that Garmsir and Marjeh are only about 25 miles apart. In this diary, I noted Senator Lisa Murkowski touting her ability to "walk freely" in the marketplace at Garmsir and how that act was eerily reminiscent of Senator John McCain’s ill-advised stroll through a Baghdad market to proclaim its safety. Now we have a major offensive needed just a few miles from Murkowski’s stunt.


But in an area where towns have changed hands so many times, there is now concern that we may see a repeat of another truly horrific experience:

Chances of success for a NATO offensive in the last big Taliban bastion in Afghanistan’s Helmand province may depend on ensuring the operation doesn’t repeat the destruction of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004.

U.S. commanders have built up expectations the operation may help deliver stability to a deeply troubled country — just as they did before fighter jets and tanks pulverised Fallujah in the name of protecting Iraqis from being terrorised by militants.

Let us hope that General Stanley McChrystal’s stated strategy based on protecting citizens will work, because all of the elements of another civilian catastrophe appear to be in place.

I never saw the movie Groundhog Day. Did Bill Murray ever escape the endless repeating of that day?

Oops. Did I mention the Brits took Garmsir again last year in Operation Panther’s Claw?