Barack Obama's Big Fat Afghan Dilemma

The generals are frustrated. The Karzai government is a mess. Was Joe Biden right after all?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Massoud Hossaini / EPA / Pool

Afghan President Hamid Karzai prays at a meeting with tribal leaders in Kandahar city, Afghanistan, June 13, 2010

Several weeks before General David Petraeus fainted at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, General Stanley McChrystal found himself stuck in yet another inconclusive meeting of the Afghan National Security Council in Kabul. McChrystal respected many of the Afghan leaders, but there was a tendency to chew over issues to the point of paralysis, which was about as distant from the can-do, let's-do U.S. military culture as you could get. McChrystal's discipline is famous, but this time he began to lecture the Afghans. "My father has a son and two nephews fighting for your freedom here in Afghanistan," he said. "How many of you have sons fighting for Afghan freedom? How many of you are willing to make the sacrifices necessary for your country's future?"

It is a sentiment that McChrystal has expressed more than once in recent weeks, and it is a sign of the growing exhaustion and frustration in U.S. military ranks — perhaps Petraeus' Capitol Hill collapse was another — after almost 10 years of nonstop fighting against an elusive enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan, two of the world's most difficult battlefields. Another sign came when McChrystal visited the Helmand province town of Marjah in May and called it a "bleeding ulcer." Marjah was supposed to be the first step before the crucial battle to secure Kandahar, the heartland of the Taliban rebellion. The town was taken easily enough by the U.S. Marines and elite Afghan National Army elements in February. But McChrystal had promised the local residents a robust security, education and economic-development program — "government in a box," he said — that has not materialized. The initial Afghan civilian government presence, according to U.S. sources, consisted of a paltry six bureaucrats. U.S. efforts to provide economic assistance were curtailed when three USAID workers were killed in Marjah in March. The Taliban quickly regrouped and are pressing the fight once again, conducting assassinations of locals who have cooperated with the Americans. In addition, the Marjah operation diverted key Afghan National Army and police forces from Kandahar province, where the more important fight — Admiral Mike Mullen has said, "As goes Kandahar, so goes Afghanistan" — has been delayed until the autumn. McChrystal's ulcerous comment was especially unfortunate because it reminded old Afghan hands of a similar one made by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988, just before he pulled the plug on the Soviet Union's Afghan fiasco. He said Afghanistan was a "bleeding wound."

Six months after Barack Obama announced his new Afghan strategy in a speech at West Point, the policy seems stymied. There are some areas of brilliant success, especially in the counterterrorism efforts of the special-operations forces, where increased human-intelligence capabilities have yielded a bumper crop of midlevel Taliban leaders killed or captured — 121 in recent months, according to McChrystal. But the larger purpose of the mission — the stabilization of Afghanistan and the eradication of the Taliban rebellion — has not gone so well. The lack of progress has led to finger-pointing and second-guessing. There have been disagreements between McChrystal and the U.S. ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, a former U.S. Army general with extensive Afghanistan experience. The military is more generally frustrated with the State Department for not producing the "civilian surge" necessary to help secure the population. And there are increasing grumblings about the timetable set by Obama, which would begin troop withdrawals in July 2011. "It's like fighting with both arms tied behind your back," a former senior military official told me.

The timetable issue is a red herring. The President's proposal, agreed to and understood by Petraeus and McChrystal, was a subtle one, conditioned on progress in the field. There was never any thought of pulling U.S. troops from the main fight against the Taliban in 2011. The President envisioned a gradual transition, beginning in the more stable areas of Afghanistan — in the north and west — and involving NATO troops as well as some American forces. The fact is, the U.S. military would have plenty of time to stabilize the situation in the Taliban-populated areas — if its battle plan were working. But the military's initial plan, with its emphasis on counterinsurgency operations to secure the population, seems to be in need of major revisions.

Counterinsurgency and counterterrorism sound a lot alike, but they are diametric opposites. Counterterrorism means going after the bad guys. Counterinsurgency means protecting the good guys. The latter requires patience and extensive resources, especially the presence of a reliable partner — a "host nation," in the words of the Army's Counterinsurgency Field Manual, that will "uphold the rule of law, and provide a basic level of essential services and security for the populace."

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2