26 June 2010

Counterinsurgency, part 2

I just read the Rolling Stone piece on Gen. McChrystal.

I didn't see one thing wrong with anything the general or any of his subordinates said.

McChrystal was in no way portrayed as insubordinate to his commander-in-chief. In June 2009, Defense Secretary Gates ordered a top-down review of the military's Afghanistan policy. McChrystal responded with a stark, jarring report, recommending that 40,000 troops be added. Obama was reportedly annoyed by McChrystal's analysis -- and apparently thought McChrystal might have been trying to show him up -- but if that's the case, why did Obama/Gates order the review in the first place?

The story did in fact paint President Obama just like I portrayed him in our recent post of June 24 (before reading the Rolling Stone piece) -- tepid, uncertain, hemming and hawing, the ultimate think-tanker -- believing a pullout to be unwise but never fully buying into the counterinsurgency. When McChrystal requested 40,000 additional troops, Obama gave him 21,000.

What precisely are we doing in Afghanistan? The story correctly that al Qaeda has shifted their operations into Pakistan -- where the terrain is equally rugged, the government is a more reluctant partner and the populace is considerably more anti-American. The elements of the Taliban remaining in Afghanistan are much less dangerous to American security than the al Qaeda operatives still roaming the Pakistani mountains.

When one realizes that the Afghani Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda are three completely separate entities, that complicates the American mission in Afghanistan further.

There really are no good answers. The more I think about Afghanistan, the more complicated it gets.

Back to McChrystal.

I've changed my tune. I'm upset that he was forced out. While David Petraeus is probably the greatest general of his era, isn't the military stronger with McChrystal in Afghanistan and Petraeus at CENTCOM? McChrystal was in no way insubordinate to his commander-in-chief in the Rolling Stone piece, and if anything, the piece left me with the impression that if the counterinsurgency strategy truly is the way to go, McChrystal is without a doubt the man to lead it.

The counterinsurgency strategy is, at its core, really about winning the support of the Afghan people, just like was done in Iraq. But as we noted, Afghanistan is an entirely different animal.

Now -- many liberals like to shriek "Vietnam" like a bunch of granola-munching late-60s hipsters. Get it through your thick heads: Afghanistan is not Vietnam. Afghanistan was the base for the most catastrophic attack on the American homeland in history. Their government provided the only state-sponsored safe harbor to al Qaeda. We haven't lost 60,000 troops. The enemy is less destructive and less numerous than the Viet Cong. And American support for the war still remains reasonably high.

But what the Rolling Stone piece did do was crystallize a number of serious doubts about our strategy in Afghanistan and whether victory is actually plausible under the current framework. It demonstrated that -- as we noted two days ago -- 8 1/2 years after launching the offensive, we are only incrementally closer to handing over security to the Afghans.

At the current rate, we will likely be another 5-10% closer to our ultimate goal of Afghan control by the targeted pullout date in 2011. U.S. casualties will remain high, but unlike in Vietnam, clear progress will be apparent. The U.S. military will be a wonderfully efficient force in building highways, schools and hospitals. The attitude of the populace will improve -- and I know these things because they all happened in Iraq. The problem is that, at the current rate, the end goal is probably seven to ten years away. Can we sustain this? Do we want to? Realistically, can America become a true occupier?

The whole thing is incredibly discouraging.

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