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Afghanistan: McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategy « Previous | |Next »
June 26, 2010

This is Rolling Stone's profile of America's senior commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, in which McCrystal made disparaging remarks about President Obama, his vice president Joe Biden and several other White House appointees. The general and his staff accused the US ambassador to Kabul of undermining the war, called the president's national security adviser "a joke", and mocked the vice-president, Joe Biden. Straight talking?

These remarks have resulted in McChrystal's dismissal, with Obama's statement emphasizing military accountability to civilian authority.

The context is the post-9/11 legacy. Former President George Bush defined the US as a nation perpetually at war. The Pentagon produced a theory to suit: the Long War doctrine postulating unending conflict against ill-defined but ubiquitous enemies. This is the "normalisation of war" theory. Obama has inherited a toxic legacy of an ‘emergency' without a foreseeable end."

And so we have the counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan designed by McChrystal that blends civilian nation building with military combat. Killing insurgents, this doctrine holds, is not enough. Military victory is meaningless unless the population is won over. The path to that, the thinking goes, lies in showing people how good government can improve their daily lives.

McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategy requires convincing the local population to support a legitimate government and stop support for the insurgents. According to Peter Galbraith in The Guardian the strategy

aims to give the Afghan government space to win over the population in contested areas. The coalition's role is to clear the Taliban from a district and, for an interval, to provide security. The Afghan government is meant to use this breathing space to establish its authority, to put in place Afghan military and police forces, and initiate economic development projects demonstrating to the population the advantage of being on the government side. The goal is to win over the less committed Taliban and to encourage a population seeing tangible progress to rat out the hardliners.

Is the population turning against the Taliban?

It's not working. One core reason is the assumption is that the Afghan administration is capable of winning the loyalty of the population. Being “an adequate strategic partner is clearly not Karzai's government, which has a record of corruption and ineffectiveness. The US and the UK seem to feel there is no alternative to Karzai, pretend that he is a competent leader and dismiss critics like Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British Ambassador in Afghanistan.

This pretence does not answer the central question: how can the counter-insurgency succeed without a credible partner? One solution is mentioned by David J. Morris here to re-focus the American mission on the initial problem that got them into Afghanistan in the first place:

preventing a major terrorist attack on the US homeland. The priority of the Biden-Bacevich approach is on destroying Al Qaeda, not the Taliban and its affiliated insurgent groups. It is a counterterrorism approach that would require at most 30,000 troops, not the current nation-building strategy which necessitates six times that many

That would mean questioning the Bush legacy of perpetual war that has resulted in the militarization of U.S. policy.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 1:03 PM | | Comments (10)


McChrystal has done what military commanders are paid to do, which is develop a strategy in response to the stated aims of the government. Military commanders don't get paid to write "These are hopelessly confused war aims and we are going to lose" memos. If they do that they simply get replaced. So while McChrystal has a strategy, we have no way of knowing whether the strategy has any chance of working, or indeed of knowing what the overall objectives are.

I've read opinions that the whole concept of an Afghan national government is flawed because the Afghan people don't think of themselves as a nation. I have no idea whether that's valid or not, but it seems like an important issue to resolve if the USA's strategy is predicated on the existence of a functional national government.

Andrew J. Bacevich ends his article by saying that waging war has become "the normal state and seemingly permanent condition of the United States." And "the only accepted ‘plan' for peace is the loaded pistol."

The loaded pistol, eh?

Mao Tse Tung is supposed to have said... "Change must come through the barrel of a gun"

Cool. Something the whole world can live (and die) by! Stay the course etc.


It comes across to me as the Vietnamisation of Afghanistan.
Unlike brighter people, the folk inheriting and running things from America appear not to recognise Vietnam in the current Afghanistan event.
If that's the case we yet another example of conservatives not forgetting and not learning.
Or, given the hookups between politics, commerce, technology, the military, academia and offshore formations that defines "the Complex" they do understand the Vietnamisation of Afghanistan and what we see as collateral damage is just the recognisable symptom or signpost of what stage "the USA" is at, in a given phase of a given cycle, its just molewhacking!
But there is a lot of determinism and triumphalism woven into the texture. They want to normalise their contradictions, but these contradictions are derived of defects and traits habituated or natural that different people find hard to adjust to individually in themselves and in others.
They can't "get" that many people outside of America can't see America in the way Americans see themselves and vice versa.
Not everyone "gets" that what's good for America is automatically good for everyone else and if not, it doesn't matter.
It's a shame that the world has to be the site for the active outworking of the American psyche. The human psyche in general is manifest too, in human affairs, of course.
But "the USA" seems an example of a mindset almost reaching a capability of ordering affairs to suit its specific wildest personal whimsy and instigate retaliation when the will is resisted.
Worrying, that.

Given the events of the last few decades (and more probably), why would the average Afghan trust anyone outside their own ethnic/tribal group?

Irony of ironies, it seems to me the strategy of a functional national government is brought to us by the same channel that claims that government is the problem, but perhaps that is true only at home and prior to recent events in the Gulf of Mexico, not to mention the case of overplaying their hands by some in the financial casino.

That comment aside, the question then is what Australia is doing in Afghanistan, since we are apparently not party to either policy or strategy. The same condition applies to the other allies, but they are more inclined to be pro-active.Why would we wish to be involved in a military confrontation with insurgencies or other people's civil wars? As in Vietnam the Kabul Government" was installed and then held up by the Americans. The legitimacy and effectiveness of the Kabul Government seems to be the foundation on which military success can be built. In plain language it is premised on violence and domination, which means that violence will be order of the day following the formal departure, but not the presence, of the imperial guiding hand.

The question is when do we leave. I am opting for the stay to the bitter end option, which is to suggest that in relation to foreign policy our national government is non functional.

"The context is the post-9/11 legacy."

With all due respect... I'm disappointed at this echo of the standard MSM line.

For any meaningful discussion, the context of this fiasco has to be seen as going back several decades... at least. Taking the all-too-common angle that everything started with 9/11 doesn't really make things any clearer.

Certainly many living in Afghanistan today will have emotions and memories which go back past 2001. That is the context they are using to determine their loyalties.

McChrystal is to leave the US army after ending his dazzling career with an indiscreet interview with Rolling Stone magazine in which he and his team attacked the Obama administration's handling of the war.

he has been succeeded by General David Petraeus architect of the Iraqi troop "surge".

Zbigniew Brzezinski from the CFR said individuals are awakening up and this makes it trickier for the elite groups to get their set agendas into movement. The transnational community does not adjust to these thoughts. The elite groups are losing major power because of infighting amongst themselves & different interest groupings that don’t want centralised power. If we do zero the elites take steps forward, if we look they take a step backward, when we awake up they run.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal was not fired because U.S. casualties in Afghanistan are running at record levels, because the much vaunted Marja initiative has failed, or because the Kandahar offensive is already in trouble during its preliminary rollout. He was fired because he and his team embarrassed the White House with carelessly frank talk to a journalist.