No quick way out of Afghanistan

Business Times - 26 Jun 2010

No quick way out of Afghanistan


OFFICIAL Washington has been riveted in recent days by a bureaucratic infighting inside the Obama administration that ended with the abrupt relief on Wednesday of General Stanley McChrystal of his command in Afghanistan.

Gen McChrystal's boss, General David Petraeus, commander of the US forces across the Middle East and the former leader of the American troops in Iraq, replaced him.

While Gen McChrystal had established a good relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, he antagonised some of the leading US civilian leaders, including the commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama. His dismissal came after the publication of a profile of the 55-year-old general in Rolling Stone magazine in which Gen McChrystal and his top aides criticised President Obama and mocked Vice-President Joe Biden and some members of the White House's national security team.

While Mr Obama had provided the additional 30,000 troops that Gen McChrystal had requested in preparation for a major anti-Taliban campaign in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, the US military leaders have expressed reservations about the White House's self-imposed deadline to start drawing down US forces next July.

Moreover, against the backdrop of rising American casualties - 76 international troops, including 46 Americans, have died in June - and the failure to defeat the Taliban, there have been clear signs of erosion in public support for the military campaign in Afghanistan.

The earlier US-led offensive in Helmand and Marjah had very limited success, forcing the military leader to delay the planned offensive in Kandahar.

The anti-war sentiment around the country and in Washington has also reflected growing disenchantment with the performance of the Afghan political and military leaders. They are seen as both incompetent and corrupt. Reports suggested that close to half of the US economic aid ends up in the hands of Mr Karzai and members of his clan and the many warlords who control the countryside.

Mr Obama told reporters on Wednesday that his decision to fire Gen McChrystal was based on his conclusion that the latter's conduct 'undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system' and 'erodes the trust that's necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan'.

But Mr Obama insisted that his decision did not mark a change in the current US strategy in Afghanistan. In fact, by selecting the more popular and politically savvy Gen Petraeus, who has been the architect of the COIN (counter-insurgency) strategy in Iraq, to replace Gen McChrystal, the White House has demonstrated its renewed commitment to a military victory. For all practical purposes, the war in Afghanistan has become Mr Obama's War now.

Gen McChrystal's removal raises questions not only about the general and the civil-military relations, but also about overall administration policy in Afghanistan. Mr Obama and his aides are hoping that in the same way that he supposedly succeeded in turning around - through the 'surge' - the failed US military campaign in Iraq, Gen Petraeus will be able to energise the stalled American effort in Afghanistan.

But while Gen Petraeus enjoys a lot of support in the US Congress and the media - there has been even some talk about him running for the presidency as a Republican candidate - his critics contend that his COIN strategy as is being implemented in Afghanistan and in Iraq suffers from a major flaw - a disconnect between the ambitious goals of the strategy and the available military and political resources to support them.

Indeed, any sustainable counter-insurgency strategy requires long-term commitment on the part of the foreign power doing the countering to not only defeat the insurgents on the battlefield but also to create the political institutions and provide the economic assistance that will help win the hearts and minds of the general population and erode the power of the guerillas.

From that perspective, Gen McChrystal's criticism of the deadline for withdrawal imposed by Mr Obama made a lot of sense. There was no way that the United States could defeat the Taliban - that is being provided assistance from insurgents operating in Pakistan - by next July or, for matter, by July 2012 or 2016.

Moreover, by signalling that the US was planning to start withdrawing from Afghanistan next year, the Americans have provided incentives for Mr Karzai and other Pashtun leaders as well as to the Pakistani military to try to make deals with the Pashtun-based Taliban.

And in any case, taking into consideration the fact that Afghanistan lacks the basic foundations of a viable nation-state and is dominated by tribal institutions and has a subsistence economy, any American-led nation-building effort in that country will require years, if not decades, of American military presence and economic commitment. Even in Iraq it is not clear that the US 'surge' did much more than help establish an interim ceasefire between rival ethnic, religious and tribal groups. Fighting may start once again - if and when US troops start pulling out.

In short, Mr Obama, reflecting public sentiment, wants the US to achieve victory AND get out of Afghanistan and Iraq ASAP. But if they want victory, the White House and the American people will have to pay a very high price in terms of lives and treasure. Not only would they have to maintain American presence in these countries but perhaps even be drawn into wars in Iran and Pakistan - for many, many years to come.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


Morris said…
Thanks for the post, pretty worthwhile info.
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