Afghanistan: The Way Forward

While an increasing number of politicians get involved, ISAF Commander Stanley McChrystal’s vision of winning hearts and minds is being chronically undercut

News | Justin McCauley | December 2009 / January 2010

Amid enormous debate regarding the next step in the war in Afghanistan, the core strategic dispute is being lost. Political forces in Washington have – predictably – hijacked the eight-year-old conflict, and virtually all discourse on the issue has been politically charged.

General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, seems to be focused on the task at hand, regardless of the political dimension. His goal: the elusive necessity of winning hearts and minds.

Gen. McChrystal was hand-picked by the administration to take charge of the Afghan War, assuming command on Jun. 15 of this year. By most accounts, he is an ideal choice – a long-time veteran of special operations, McChrystal has nearly thirty years of experience in units specialising in counter-insurgency.  In Iraq, while commander of JSOC – a covert command comprised of units such as the shadowy Delta Force – he was responsible for the operations that captured Saddam Hussein and killed Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. Retired U.S. Army general and military commentator Barry McCaffrey recently described McChrystal as "the most effective counter-terrorist fighter [the U.S. has had] in twenty-five years." He has been described by many as one of General Petraeus’ most valued advisors in Iraq – one who contributed greatly to Petraeus’ much-praised counter-insurgency strategy.

Many have criticised the Obama administration’s deliberation concerning McChrystal’s request for 40,000 additional troops; others support the president in his efforts to explore all options and make a well-informed decision. A Nov.11 White House statement indicated that President Obama is considering four options: a low-end option (10-15,000 troops), two middle options (20,000 and 30,000), and McChrystal’s request (40,000). Obama said in a November visit to China that he was "very close" to reaching a decision and would unveil his strategy in the next "several weeks."

While an increasing number of politicians are becoming involved in the discourse – from Wesley Clark to John McCain – what is being chronically undercut is the strategic vision of McChrystal himself.

So what is McChrystal’s plan? His strategy is a comprehensive counter-insurgency campaign, one which the general argues is the only way to effectively combat the insurgency, strengthen the Afghan government and, most importantly, protect Afghan citizens. McChrystal’s ethos centers on security for civilians, which he sees as integral to succeeding in Afghanistan. In a recent speech given in the UK on Oct. 1, he stated that the U.S. failed to meet Afghan expectations in 2001-2002, and that winning hearts and minds – essential in any unconventional war – will be difficult if coalition troops cannot guarantee the population’s safety.

A recent development that has further complicated the debate is allegations of fraud in the recent Afghan elections, which has led many in Washington to argue that without a strong, reliable central government in Kabul, McChrystal’s plan is useless. As Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) stated in a Washington Post editorial in Feb. 10 of this year, "An illegitimate and isolated central government…would doom our efforts and drive the people into the clutches of the Taliban."

However, many counter-insurgency experts disagree with the assertion that the general’s strategy is only valid with Kabul strong.

"The existence of an insurgency indicates that the government in question is failing, is not stable, and is not secure," U.S. Central Command official and Special Forces veteran Paul Mundt told The Vienna Review, meaning a counter-insurgency strategy takes into account a weak central government, and is not dependent on a strong one. A former Delta Force officer agreed. "A perfect COIN campaign can create the conditions for a stable government to form," he said.

So if one of the goals of counter-insurgency is to establish the conditions for creating a stable government, then the strategy has been distorted in the political debate.  Nonetheless, many, such as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, advocate a troop increase, although the number is disputed. According to The New York Times, Gates and Clinton are supportive of the option to send 30,000 troops. Others in the administration remain skeptical, such as Vice President Joe Biden and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

The critics of counter-insurgency support a more limited counter-terrorism campaign targeting Al-Qaeda, a strategy which puts more emphasis on Afghan forces from the outset. This poses two potential problems: the fate of the Taliban, and the current state of the Afghan security forces. The 2001 U.S.-led invasion was tasked not only with combating Al-Qaeda, but also the Taliban. Failure to target the Taliban would not only create a precarious situation for Afghan civilians, but also damage already strained relations with Pakistan, who after 8 years of U.S. demands has finally launched its own military campaign against the Taliban. Regarding the Afghan forces, by all accounts, they are not ready for the responsibilities that would be allotted to them. McChrystal’s plan allows for proper training time, and for the Afghans to be phased in as coalition troops are phased out.

McChrystal’s approach is costly, but also innovative. In Iraq, McChrystal employed a policy of deploying the same Special Forces troops to the same areas, resulting in a building of trust and rapport between Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers. Since commanding in Afghanistan, he has employed such tactics as deploying all-female Marine platoons on cultural missions – donning hijabs under their helmets – in an effort to connect with Afghan women.

In addition, McChrystal has proposed a drastic reduction in bombing, telling a group of senior advisors that "air power contains the seeds of our destruction, if we do not use it responsibly." This controversial approach is certainly unpopular with many in the military, but illustrates McChrystal’s acute understanding of the situation through the eyes of the civilian populace.

The troops on the ground offer their own assessment of the situation. 1st Lt. Chris Conanan, a young Marine platoon commander, recently told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that most Afghans he has encountered are "on the fence" – meaning they have the potential to support either NATO forces or the Taliban. This decision, says McChrystal, is based on rationality and practicality. Whoever can protect and provide for them best will gain the population’s allegiance. Most soldiers confirm that civilian support is attainable, but only if NATO forces are disciplined and patient enough to remain on the ground to provide physical security for the people.

Despite increasing unpopularity for the Afghan War in both Europe and the United States, a recent Opinion Research Corp survey indicates that 52 percent of Americans think Obama should listen to his generals.

However, a new debate has arisen as Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, recently cabled Washington expressing apprehension at the increasing U.S. presence in the country. As a former general who also served as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Eikenberry’s assessment seems to be serving as a counterpoint to McChrystal’s position in the decision-making process of the Obama administration.  Given their divergent views however, the debate seems not so much over how to win in Afghanistan, but whether the war is worth winning.

Ultimately, the question of goals will be answered once the Obama administration makes its decision on troop levels; Gen. McChrystal will then be forced to adjust his strategy accordingly. McChrystal himself remains committed to a comprehensive counter-insurgency that will be implemented alongside continued police and military training. This, according to many, will be enough to create the conditions for a legitimate and empowered central government to materialise.

On the ground, the violence continues, but most of the population remains un-radicalized. As Christiane Amanpour said in an Oct. 29 editorial, "Afghan men, women and children have told me they do not see the U.S. and NATO forces as occupiers, rather as armies from countries who came to help them... but who have fallen short of their promises." According to many civilian and military experts, winning over the population is possible, but is dependent on the U.S. and NATO’s willingness to stay the course and persevere.

This is proving to be a tough political sell in the United States, and even more so in Europe, where involvement in the war remains extremely unpopular. Still, if the U.S. and its NATO allies are to be successful in Afghanistan, a renewed commitment and a security guarantee to the Afghan people are essential.

"A villager recently asked me whether we intended to remain in his village and provide security," explained Gen. McChrystal last month in the UK, "to which I confidently promised him that, of course, we would. He looked at me and said, ‘Okay, but you did not stay last time.’"

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