Days after Rolling Stone magazine published General Stanley McChrystal’s disparaging comments about the United States’ political leadership in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama accepted the resignation of the commander of all NATO and American forces in the country. His replacement with General David Petraeus is a “change in personnel,” said Obama, “not a change in policy.” Meanwhile, forces on the ground are starting to lose confidence in that policy.
McChrystal was brought in as Afghanistan commander in June of last year. It was the first time since the Korean War that a wartime theater commander, in this case General David McKiernan, was prematurely relieved of his post. As The Washington Post noted at the time, McKiernan “lacked the charisma and political savvy that General David H. Petraeus brought to the Iraq war” — indispensable feats for a twenty-first century battlefield commander. Moreover, Defense Security Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen both considered him too languid and too old fashioned to implement a bold counterinsurgency strategy that would allow America to eventually emerge at least somewhat victorious from the quagmire which Afghanistan had become. McKiernan kept asking for more troops while the president had campaigned on a promise to bring them all home.
More troops would be pouring into Afghanistan nonetheless as even McChrystal couldn’t do the job without reinforcements. His assessment of the war, which was leaked in September 2009, warned that Afghanistan might be lost unless thousands of additional US soldiers were deployed. The general’s release of this recommendation was unprecedented and sparked criticism of his political savvyness which obviously wasn’t so great after all. But his request was met. 40,000 more troops soon flowed into Afghanistan.
At the same time, McChrystal realized that just more boots on the ground wouldn’t win the war. He tried to shift the emphasis from chasing Taliban insurgents to protecting towns and cities which sympathized with the ISAF mission and with the Karzai government in Kabul. He restricted bombing operations to minimize civilian casualties and noted that he would rather let a few insignificant insurgents walk than kill innocent women and children in the process of hunting them down.
Further discord with the administration soon followed however. In a speech delivered in London in late September, McChrystal flatly rejected proposals to switch to a strategy more reliant on drone missile strikes and Special Forces operations against terrorists. He told the Institute of International and Strategic Studies that the notion, which was favored by Vice President Joe Biden, would lead to “Chaos-istan.” The White House was not amused and summoned McChrystal to an awkward face-to-face conversation with the president on board Air Force One.
This week, McChrystal was again called to meet Obama in private after mocking statements about civilian officials, including Vice President Biden, National Security Advisor James Jones, US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and special envoy to the region Richard Holbrooke, appeared in an issue of Rolling Stone. The quotes were attributed to both McChrystal and members of his staff.
Two days before the magazine appeared on the newsstands, the general tendered his resignation, stating that he continues to support the president’s war strategy and remains committed to the coalition forces and the Afghan people. “It was out of respect for this commitment — and a desire to see the mission succeed — that I tendered my resignation,” he declared.
The comments made by McChrystal and his staff may well be reflective of a widespread frustration among American forces about the futility of their effort. The Afghan war is now the longest in America’s history and many in the field and at home are wondering whether it can ever be won. The New York Times reports this week that restrictions on the use of airstrikes and artillery are cause for mounting discontent. “As levels of violence in Afghanistan climb, there is a palpable and building sense of unease among troops surrounding one of the most confounding questions about how to wage the war,” according to the newspaper: “when and how lethal force should be used.”
At the heart of the counterinsurgency strategy supported by both the Bush and the Obama Administration lies the assumption that the use of lethal force against an insurgency intermingled with a civilian population is often counterproductive. Lessons in irregular warfare from Colombia and Sri Lanka may prove that assumption wrong yet the lack of concern for civilian casualties in their counterinsurgency tactics is something no Western electorate will ever accept anymore.
In any event, the troops on the ground are skeptical. According to The New York Times, many worry that “the effort to limit risks to civilians has swung too far, and endangers the lives of Afghan and Western soldiers caught in firefights with insurgents who need not observe any rules at all.”
Zach Rosenberg who reports from Afghanistan for the blog War is Boring tells a similar story. In private, soldiers express their disease to him about “what they see as high-risk, low-payoff missions. They are skeptical that holding fire will reap greater safety in the long run.” The officers, according to Rosenberg, all have clear notions about how to execute a counterinsurgency strategy in their parts of Afghanistan. For the enlisted men and women however, it is difficult to see any benefits being directly derived from it.
Western forces in Afghanistan are now rounding up for the Kandahar offensive which will be a perfect test case for the counterinsurgency paradigm. The province is impoverished; the capital scarred by daily violence. Years of mismanagement and neglect on the part of the Afghan government have allowed the Taliban to establish a powerful presence in the region. The operation is supposed to turn the tide of the war. As Admiral Mullen told senators last week, “As goes Kandahar, so goes Afghanistan.”