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Gen. McChrystal is Out, But His Policy is Still In and the Warning Lights are Flashing

June 23, 2010

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer says that Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s dismissive remarks about Obama administration officials have made it harder to muster support for the war in Afghanistan.  President Obama’s decision to replace McChrystal with Gen. David Petraeus may not make Mr. Hoyer’s life much easier, since the president has said the change in commanders does not mean any change in policy and the warning signs of policy failure are increasing.  Another sign of trouble that Mr. Hoyer says is fueling congressional skepticism about the war is a House panel investigation that recently uncovered indirect U.S. protection payments to Afghan warlords and Taliban insurgents.

But doubts about Gen. McChrystal’s judgment and the House investigation’s revelations of the contradictions inherent in U.S. operations in Afghanistan were not the only warning signs of a failing policy to appear this week. The most important warning lights flashing now have hardly been noticed in the United States. Congress and the Obama administration should be heeding the warning lights and alarm bells set off by the resignation (or more precisely the “extended leave” taking) of the UK’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles. Cowper-Coles was a strong proponent of negotiations with the Afghan Taliban.  He had argued that talks with the Taliban were urgent since the aggressive war-fighting strategy championed by Gen. McChrystal was in his view headed for failure.  These views had led him to clash with U.S. officials in Afghanistan in recent months.

All Alone and On the Brink
The Obama administration, following the McChrystal lead, continues to insist on delaying overtures to Taliban leaders until military operations “weaken” the insurgency. This position puts the U.S. at odds with the UK and most other NATO partners, the Karzai government, the UN Afghanistan mission, and probably the majority of Afghans, including some Afghan feminists. (Independent Afghan member of parliament Shukria Barakzai, for instance, says that the Taliban “are part of our population” and “every war has to end with talks and negotiations.”) Congress and the administration should be asking themselves if it’s a good idea for the U.S. to isolate itself from so many of its allies on this key issue.

The greater danger of the U.S. “maybe-but-not-yet” policy on talking to the Taliban ought to be clear to everyone by now. The failure of the model Marja offensive to oust the Taliban and bring either security or good government to the 70,000 Afghans there strongly suggests that the model will not work well among the 1.5 million Afghans in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. Instead of military operations weakening the Taliban to the point where they will sue for peace, the failure of military operations in Marja and Kandahar will weaken the Karzai government and the U.S. and make it harder to reach a compromise with Taliban leaders. Given the odds dictated by the Marja experience, a military commander with good judgment will seek to negotiate instead of risking a battle that is more likely to weaken than strengthen his position.  Gen. McChrystal, up to the moment of his resignation, seemed impervious to the odds.

Taliban = Sons of Iraq
Gen. McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy has been widely seen as applying the model of the Iraq surge to the war in Afghanistan.  But perhaps the biggest problem with the Afghanistan counterinsurgency strategy is that it has so far failed to apply the model of the Iraq surge to Afghanistan. The Iraq surge “succeeded” not because of the additional fire power provided by the surge of U.S. troops, but because an inside-Iraq diplomatic surge converted most insurgents to allies and a regional diplomatic surge achieved just enough buy-in from Iran, Syria and other neighboring countries to support increased stability. The uncomfortable truth in Afghanistan is that the Taliban are the equivalent of the Sons of Iraq and the Pashtun-majority areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan are Iraq’s Anbar province. The Anbaris were not al-Qaeda, and neither are the Taliban.

The Taliban may not prove as amenable to halting their insurgency and reconciling with the Afghan government as the Anbaris were in Iraq, but as long as U.S. policy doesn’t attempt to engage them in negotiations it is on a course to failure. Now that President Obama has removed the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and put the Sorcerer back in charge, maybe there is new opportunity for the uncomfortable truth to sink in and produce a new U.S. Afghanistan policy built around national reconciliation, regional diplomacy, and Afghan-led development aid.

  1. George Bergey permalink
    June 24, 2010 11:18 am

    “Now that President Obama has removed the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and put the Sorcerer back in charge, maybe there is new opportunity for the uncomfortable truth to sink in and produce a new U.S. Afghanistan policy built around national reconciliation, regional diplomacy, and Afghan-led development aid.”
    This was an excellent article. However, this statement is just the opposite of what is in the works. Could Gen. McChrystal really have been so stupid to have allowed such remarks to be recorded by Rolling Stone magazine interviewers. It is a suspicion only, but a suspicion, nonetheless, that this was a setup. To accomplish what? To bring President Obama onboard for the long-term 20-year war and occupation of Afghanistan. This is a plan that I heard promulgated at the Army War College in Carlisle, PA, just over a year ago. The President was not inclined toward such a course and chose to adopt a one-year surge option instead. That has ended. This is now President Obama’s war and it is now a war of imperial aggression.

  2. Joe Ryan permalink
    June 24, 2010 11:39 am

    The Iraq surge took place when the Iraqi opposition had gained everything it wanted and had settled in to enjoy its victory.

  3. R.Jennings permalink
    June 24, 2010 11:55 am

    Firstly, we had no chance at anything remotely close to “victory” in Afghanistan from Day One as you cannot build democracy in a land without sovereigniy. We tried this in Vietnam, learned numerous lessons which we completely disregarded and committed the foreign policy debacle,again!!! Joe Ryan mentions the surge in Iraq; I write to a young sergeant on his third tour in Iraq and he informs me that the surge was successful only because we began PAYING the baddies to stop shooting at our people. Bush claimed a great victory for the surge, but the violence continues; until the country is divided up and each sectarian element has its own area to do whatever, there will be discord that we will pay for with blood and treasure, and the Iraqui people will continue to suffer. We now learn that we are paying warlords in Afghanistan for protection; sounds like the mafia all over. What a joke we must be around the tribal campfires when the Islamics boast of fooling us over and over and we come back for more. Very, very obviously WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER!!!

  4. Rudolph Smith permalink
    June 24, 2010 12:57 pm

    People keep parroting the line of “winning” or “losing” the war in Afghanistan. I am honestly unable to understand what this even means. The original U.S. invasion was publicly justified on the ridiculous pretext of bringing a single person (Osama bin Laden) to justice. This guy has evaded capture for nine (!) years, and has presumably left the country by now or even died of old age. He is no longer mentioned at all by the architects of US policy. Yet, strangely, we still have to spend billions of dollars a week to keep fighting! Much more likely, the war was actually launched to secure the route of the proposed TAPI pipeline, build a lot of taxpayer-funded forts and garrisons in the area, and install a puppet government that could promise security for this oil industry infrastructure (see the good “Pipelinistan” reporting by Asia Times reporter Pepe Escobar for more on this). If so, this ridiculous and deceitful enterprise has obviously failed, and it’s long past time to call it quits. Hopefully we can all avoid playing into the spurious Bush/Obama rationale in the meantime by skipping the sober-sounding discussions on the “progress” of the war, which have not been appropriate for US military adventures since 1944.

  5. Ellen Rosser permalink
    June 24, 2010 3:02 pm

    Why aren’t we talking about the fact that Bush lied to begin the war against Afghanistan just as he lied to begin the war against Saddam. There were no weapons of mass destruction, and, comparably, the Taliban were not habouring terrorists. Instead, when Bush demanded that the Taliban turn Osama Bin Laden over to the US, Mullah Omar countered with a proposal that conforms to international law as Guantanamo did not: Mullah Omar offered to turn bin Laden over to a third neutral country for a trial by an Islamic court. And Bush refused! And then attacked. We should never have gone in and we should leave immediately. It is totally unjust that we attacked the Taliban to begin with, and it is not our business if they take over Afghanistan again. But it would be wise to work with them and help them become moderate Islamists.

  6. GARY permalink
    June 25, 2010 4:15 am

    The comments of MacCrystal and company, are an indication that the Obama Admin strategy, inherited from GW Bush and cabol, is failing. When something is a failure, it is common for the members of a group to turn on each other instead of focusing on the enemy. Every news we hear from Afghanistan is how the Taliban has won the day. And here comes the 30,000 extra troops that, sorry to say, the US does not have without putting undue srain on existing forces. Soldiers are being sent back to war zones 3 and 4 and 5 times. That’s too much. In Viet Nam almost all soldiers only had to serve there for one year,

  7. August 6, 2010 11:30 pm

    good post

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