Afghanistan – It Is Fish Or Cut Bait Time
As someone who just said goodbye to his son this weekend as he deploys to Afghanistan, I’m much more interested in that war than I might usually be. As it happens, General Stanley McChrystal’s assessment has been excerpted by Bob Woodward in the Washington Post. It is a rather blunt assessment – he needs more forces or we risk “mission failure”.
Let me begin this by saying I don’t care if you are for or against our being in Afghanistan – we’re there. Staying or leaving are obviously the two options we have at this point. The present political leadership told everyone who would listen as they were campaigning for the job that Afghanistan was the “good war” and the “necessary war” and we needed to prosecute it with an eye on eliminating the threat al Qaeda posed and removing the country as a safe-haven. Given the circumstances and situation there that is a very difficult mission fraught with not only danger but obviously requiring a real commitment in blood and treasure.
Faced with a growing and more adept insurgent foe, a corrupt and incompetent host nation government, and a neighboring state under both duress and threat from the same enemy, the situation that confronts both the military and civilian leadership is an extremely difficult one. But, as McChrystal notes, “While the situation is serious, success if still achievable”.
Note that the word used is “success”, not “victory”. I’m not one to quibble about those words. Victory is used in a military sense. Victory is success. But we all know that while the military is an integral part of any success we might have there, ultimately it can’t “win” the day by itself. Success will be defined as leaving a sovereign nation capable of governing and defending itself when we eventually leave. We may not like that definition, we may not like the fact that we’re again engaged in nation building and we may not like the fact that such an endeavor is going to take years, possibly decades to achieve – but that is the situation we now find ourselves in. If we were to abandon Afghanistan now, we’d see it quickly revert to the state it was in 2001 – ruled by Islamic fundamentalists and a safe-haven for our most avowed enemies.
We have to decide now whether or not we’re going to commit to the “long war” to achieve the success I’ve outlined or whether we, like many nations before us, will leave Afghanistan to its fate and suffer the consequences such an abandonment may bring in the future.
It Is “Fish Or Cut Bait” Time
Our national leadership must now make that hard decision. This is no time for equivocation. It is no time for years worth of study and debate. General McChrystal makes that very clear in his assessment:
“Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”
And he makes clear another very important point, one that the civilian leadership needs to understand.
“Further, a perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents.”
Prior to the surge in Iraq, the same sort of perception existed within the Iraqi population. Until we made a firm commitment to stay and protect them, Iraq did not begin to improve. Gen. McChrystal is simply noting the same dynamic understandably exists in Afghanistan. He’s also tactfully saying that we must quickly prove to the population of Afghanistan that we are committed to protecting them while they do what is necessary to empower themselves, their government and their military to a level that they can protect themselves.
Step one in that process is to quickly ensure that the commitment to do that is clear and the forces necessary to do it are forthcoming. That has got to come from national leadership and it has to be said in precise and unequivocal language. Unfortunately, given this weekend’s performance, our national leadership has claimed to be “skeptical” about the need for more troops in the country. The time for debate is rapidly coming to a close. A decision must be made, and in relative terms, it must be made quickly. Whatever it ends up being it should be aimed at one of the two options I’ve outlined – successs or abandonment of the effort.
What Has To Change
Obviously that is all dependent upon the decision reached by the national leadership, however General McChrystal recognizes some rather daunting problems in the situation within the country and how we’re fighting the war.
The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF’s own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government.”
All of those things, then, must change for the positive. As our experience in Iraq tells us, that’s a very difficult and time consuming job, especially when we talk about changing the culture of governance, stopping corruption and abuse of power and connecting the government to the people. As you might imagine, that’s not a job for the military, but, instead the State Department and various of our other government agencies. So the question isn’t just are we willing to commit the soldiers necessary to effectively conduct COIN, but are we willing to commit the civilians necessary to properly establish a functioning government in a nation which has never had one?
Without that sort of commitment, we can send all the soldiers we have for as long as we want too but we’ll never achieve the success necessary to leave Afghanistan.
McChrystal further notes:
“Afghan social, political, economic, and cultural affairs are complex and poorly understood. ISAF does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population.”
Our civilians must understand that too because it all combines to result in a “crisis of confidence among the Afghans” per McChrystal. Until that perception is changed, the crisis of confidence will remain the most difficult roadblock and continue to make Afghans “reluctant to align with us against the insurgents”.
McChrystal also addresses the Afghan prison system which he claims has become a breeding ground for terrorists:
In a four-page annex on detainee operations, McChrystal warns that the Afghan prison system has become “a sanctuary and base to conduct lethal operations” against the government and coalition forces. He cites as examples an apparent prison connection to the 2008 bombing of the Serena Hotel in Kabul and other attacks. “Unchecked, Taliban/Al Qaeda leaders patiently coordinate and plan, unconcerned with interference from prison personnel or the military.”
The assessment says that Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents “represent more than 2,500 of the 14,500 inmates in the increasingly overcrowded Afghan Corrections System,” in which “[h]ardened, committed Islamists are indiscriminately mixed with petty criminals and sex offenders, and they are using the opportunity to radicalize and indoctrinate them.”
Noting that the United States “came to Afghanistan vowing to deny these same enemies safe haven in 2001,” he says they now operate with relative impunity in the prisons. “There are more insurgents per square foot in corrections facilities than anywhere else in Afghanistan,” his assessment says.
Obviously segregation of terrorists and/or terrorist suspects is the short term solution, but the fact the situation exists simply underscores how poorly run the civilian government of Afghanistan is at the moment.
The Military Plan
Gen. McChrystal bases his plan on this premise:
“Pre-occupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us — physically and psychologically — from the people we seek to protect. . . . The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves.”
That has then put the ISAF in the situation that it is “not adequately executing the basics” of counterinsurgency by putting the Afghan people first. … ISAF personnel must be seen as guests of the Afghan people and their government, not an occupying army” … “Key personnel in ISAF must receive training in local languages.”
He believes that the military operational culture must change:
He also says that coalition forces will change their operational culture, in part by spending “as little time as possible in armored vehicles or behind the walls of forward operating bases.” Strengthening Afghans’ sense of security will require troops to take greater risks, but the coalition “cannot succeed if it is unwilling to share risk, at least equally, with the people.”
McChrystal warns that in the short run, it “is realistic to expect that Afghan and coalition casualties will increase.”
It is here, however, where we bump up against what is a key political point. Is the current leadership willing to accept that increase in casualties to do the necessary job? The word is there is little support for increasing the troop strength in Afghanistan within the Congressional leadership. That will only make the job harder and more dangerous for those who are there. If the operational culture is changed and we see what troops are in country outside the wire and more exposed, the casualty counts may increase anyway, with or without the additional troops.
The last and equally as important a task as protecting the population is expanding and standing up a competent Afghan army and police force:
He proposes speeding the growth of Afghan security forces. The existing goal is to expand the army from 92,000 to 134,000 by December 2011. McChrystal seeks to move that deadline to October 2010.
Overall, McChrystal wants the Afghan army to grow to 240,000 and the police to 160,000 for a total security force of 400,000, but he does not specify when those numbers could be reached.
He also calls for “radically more integrated and partnered” work with Afghan units.
As we learned in Iraq, this is an exceptionally difficult job that requires extraordinary effort on the part of our trainers.
The Broader War
McChrystal also gives a very detailed assessment of the insurgency. A couple of interesting points:
Overall, McChrystal provides this conclusion about the enemy: “The insurgents control or contest a significant portion of the country, although it is difficult to assess precisely how much due to a lack of ISAF presence. . . . ”
The insurgents make money from the production and sale of opium and other narcotics, but the assessment says that “eliminating insurgent access to narco-profits — even if possible, and while disruptive — would not destroy their ability to operate so long as other funding sources remained intact.”
Or, let’s not get sidetracked with a war on opium when all it will do is further alienate the population and make no difference at all to the war effort.
While the insurgency is predominantly Afghan, McChrystal writes that it “is clearly supported from Pakistan. Senior leaders of the major Afghan insurgent groups are based in Pakistan, are linked with al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups, and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan’s ISI,” which is its intelligence service. Al-Qaeda and other extremist movements “based in Pakistan channel foreign fighters, suicide bombers, and technical assistance into Afghanistan, and offer ideological motivation, training, and financial support.”
Or, Pakistan is a critical key to any success in Afghanistan and should be worked just as hard as any effort in Afghanistan.
But the most important point to be taken from the McChrystal assessment is one that is found throughout the document:
“Failure to provide adequate resources also risks a longer conflict, greater casualties, higher overall costs, and ultimately, a critical loss of political support. Any of these risks, in turn, are likely to result in mission failure.”
The ball is now in the civilian leadership’s court and the future of our effort in Afghanistan must be decided very soon if we’re going to commit to “success”.