Obama's Afghan Problem: Not a General, But a War Strategy

  • Share
  • Read Later
Denis Sinyakov / Reuters

U.S. soldiers secure a road at a temporary checkpoint in the Dand district south of Kandahar, Afghanistan

The most damaging comment by General Stanley McChrystal about the Obama Administration's Afghanistan war effort was not in the Rolling Stone story that got him canned. Instead it was his explanation, two weeks ago during a NATO briefing in Brussels, for the delay in the planned Kandahar offensive, deemed the pivotal campaign of the war. "When you go to protect people," McChrystal said, "the people have to want you to protect them." Protecting the people rather than hunting down insurgents is the essence of the counterinsurgency strategy pursued by McChrystal, with Obama's blessing. But he seemed, in Brussels, to inadvertently reveal what could be a fatal weakness in the plan: the civilian population of southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban insurgency is based, does not support escalating the U.S. war effort.

President Obama insisted Wednesday that he was replacing the commander rather than the strategy in Afghanistan, but the mounting difficulties facing that strategy were certainly a primary driver of the internecine backstabbing that was laid bare by the Rolling Stone article that got McChrystal fired. Violence is on the increase, the Taliban is hardly in retreat, both Pakistan and Afghan President Hamid Karzai continue to hedge their bets and NATO allies want out. The idea that the war can be handed over to Afghan security forces anytime soon appears fanciful. And prospects for turning things around by next summer, the Administration's putative target date to begin drawing down, are looking grim.

The current strategy in Afghanistan emerged as a compromise between contending voices in the Administration. Traditional counterinsurgency requires slowly — often over years rather than months — creating conditions of security and contentment in the civilian population to deny the insurgents a foothold. But Afghanistan doesn't easily lend itself to that approach. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger noted in Thursday's Washington Post, the country has throughout its history defied every attempt at pacification by foreign armies, and its central government has always been weak, with stability based instead on complex and not necessarily democratic local balances of power. The problem lies less with President Karzai's failure to perform to Western expectations, Kissinger argued, than it does with the unrealistic nature of those expectations themselves.

It is widely assumed on all sides that the conflict will ultimately end in some form of compromise, probably with decentralized government and a compact with Afghanistan's neighbors to underwrite stability — and with many of those currently fighting under the Taliban umbrella ultimately getting a share of power. From its inception, the Obama Administration has avoided talk of destroying or even defeating the Taliban. Even as he announced McChrystal's resignation, Obama reiterated that the goal of the mission was to "break the Taliban's momentum" and "degrade al-Qaeda." Addressing the expectations of the folks back home, a top McChrystal aide, Major General Bill Mayville, had told Rolling Stone that Afghanistan is "not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win. This is going to end in an argument."

Despite accepting the inevitability of some form of settlement with the Taliban, U.S. officials insist the troop surge is vital to achieve a political solution on more favorable terms. They argue that no good will come of negotiations with the Taliban leadership while the insurgents believe they have the upper hand on the battlefield. The U.S. and its allies, the argument goes, would have to deal the Taliban a series of humbling blows to force it to accept peace on terms acceptable to the West and its allies. That may make sense in the Pentagon, the White House and Foggy Bottom, but U.S. allies — from European NATO members to Pakistan and Karzai — are skeptical and are pressing for negotiations with the leadership of the Taliban now rather than waiting for a protracted military campaign to turn the tide. Even the Obama Administration allowed only 18 months for the strategy to produce results, in recognition of the declining domestic popularity of what is now America's longest war.

There are plenty of indications casting doubt over the prospects for counterinsurgency in Afghanistan — its own canvassing of local opinion in and around Kandahar has told the U.S. military that the overwhelming majority of the civilian population opposes a military offensive and instead wants a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. McChrystal in Brussels spoke of the need to delay the operation so as to better "shape" local public opinion, but it's far from clear that the U.S. military will find local political allies capable of rallying the population in support of continuing a war they want ended. Even a more optimistic view of the prospects for counterinsurgency in Afghanistan would see the July 2011 date to begin drawing down as unrealistic. Whether or not the Obama Administration remains committed to that target, political divisions in Washington over the war are likely to escalate.

The idea of accepting something short of victory in what is now commonly referred to as "Obama's war" might be politically risky for an Administration going into a tough re-election campaign in 2012, but one of McChrystal's aides warns in the Rolling Stone article that if the American public were aware of just how bad things are on the ground in Afghanistan, the war would be even more unpopular than it already is. So, the Obama Administration faces a growing challenge in selling its Afghanistan strategy to both Afghans and Americans.

President Obama began his White House address almost two weeks ago on the BP oil catastrophe by drawing what might be an unfortunate comparison. "As we speak, our nation faces a multitude of challenges," Obama said. "At home, our top priority is to recover and rebuild from a recession that has touched the lives of nearly every American. Abroad, our brave men and women in uniform are taking the fight to al-Qaeda wherever it exists. And tonight, I've returned from a trip to the Gulf Coast to speak with you about the battle we're waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens."

By linking the war in Afghanistan to the recession and the oil spill, Obama was effectively filing it under the heading of problems that he may have limited means to solve.