After Marjah, Before Kandahar
What is the American goal in Afghanistan? To chase al Qaeda, degrade the Taliban, or protect the people from the Taliban’s depredations? Is it to provide consensual government under elected leadership, clean government and services to the people? Or maybe it is to kill bad guys? But what constitutes a bad guy? Is it killing Americans or depriving Afghan women of their civil and human rights? If the former, would they be less likely to kill us if we weren’t in their country?
What is the American goal in Afghanistan? To chase al Qaeda, degrade the Taliban, or protect the people from the Taliban’s depredations? Is it to provide consensual government under elected leadership, clean government and services to the people? Or maybe it is to kill bad guys? But what constitutes a bad guy? Is it killing Americans or depriving Afghan women of their civil and human rights? If the former, would they be less likely to kill us if we weren’t in their country? If the latter, is it the job of the United States to provide Western-style opportunities for women only in Afghanistan, or elsewhere as well? If we chase al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, will we follow them to their next refuge?
The President, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State have provided varying answers to those questions and the result is that the military officers fighting the Afghan war appear to have divergent views about what we are doing and for how long we will do it.
In a series of events dating from late May, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Adm. Eric Olson and Gen. David Petraeus – and Karl Eikenberry, a former Army Lieutenant General now Ambassador to Afghanistan – clearly, and perhaps inadvertently, laid out the U.S. policy conundrum beginning in Marjah.
The battle for Marjah, begun in February, was to be the first demonstration of Gen. McChrystal’s population-centric warfighting doctrine for Afghanistan: emphasis on preventing civilian casualties- even at greater risk to the lives of U.S. and coalition troops – providing security for the people; ensuring that Afghan government services and jobs would follow (“government in a box,” he called it); and proving that life would be better under U.S.-Afghan rules than under the Taliban.
“I believe the perception caused by civilian casualties is one of the most dangerous enemies we face,” because when the U.S. kills civilians more people join the Taliban,” McChrystal said, and a loss of popular support “will be strategically decisive.”
This doctrine was in support of the President’s determination that the U.S. would leave Afghanistan in 2011 with an operative, consensual government. But Ambassador Eikenberry had doubts. In leaked cables described in the press, he wrote:
“President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner… The proposed counterinsurgency strategy assumes an Afghan political leadership that is both able to take responsibility and to exert sovereignty in the furtherance of our goal, yet Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development. He and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further.”
If Amb. Eikenberry is concerned about the inability of the Karzai government to function, Adm. Eric Olson did not believe the population-focused strategy was responsive to American military interests. A report in Defense News notes:
The U.S. military’s counterinsurgency tactics increasingly place too much emphasis on protecting local peoples and not enough on fighting enemy forces, said U.S. Special Operations Command chief Adm. Eric Olson. While the U.S. military has adopted a population-focused strategy in Afghanistan, Olson said he “fears counterinsurgency has become a euphemism for nonkinetic activities.”
The term is now to often used to describe efforts aimed at “protecting populations,” Olson said during a conference… The military’s top special operator, in a shot across the bow of modern-day counterinsurgency doctrine proponents, then added: “Counterinsurgency should involve countering the insurgents.”
While insisting that the population-centered approach serves the mission, Gen. McChrystal appears worried about the time line. In late May, he expressed impatience with the pace of progress and the unwillingness of the people of Marjah to side openly with the Afghan government or the U.S.-led coalition. Knight Ridder reported:
There aren’t enough U.S. and Afghan forces to provide the security that’s needed to win the loyalty of wary locals. The Taliban have beheaded Afghans who cooperate with foreigners in a creeping intimidation campaign. The Afghan government hasn’t dispatched enough local administrators or trained police to establish credible governance, and now the Taliban have begun their anticipated spring offensive. “This is a bleeding ulcer right now,” McChrystal told a group of Afghan officials.
One American civilian strategist told McChrystal that it would be hard to force Marjah residents to shed their skepticism quickly. “The vast majority of people are going to be on the fence, and they’re going to wait… The hard question for us is: Can we push them off the fence or do we have to wait for them? It will take time, and even if you throw two more battalions in there, it is still going to take months and months.”
The United States military has postponed the next phase of its planned Afghan operations – the offensive in Kandahar – because conditions in Marjah are still unsettled. The Knight Ridder story explained:
In an attempt to contain the creeping Taliban campaign (Marines) in northern Marjah recently ceded direct control of an outlying rural area, collapsed its battle space and moved a company back into the population center, which had been neglected. “There was no security,” said a tribal elder whose fear of the Taliban prompted him to leave Marjah two weeks ago for the relative safety of Helmand’s nearby provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. “By day there is government,” he said. “By night it’s the Taliban.”
This leads to the question of the planned U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan in July 2011. To the extent that the Afghans understand that we have an exit strategy and the Taliban doesn’t need one, it is in their interest to find a way to live with the Taliban rather than with us. And if we believe the Taliban will be the long-term player, how do we plan to force out al Qaeda? And even if we do, what will make them stay out?
President Obama, at a joint press conference with President Karzai, reiterated, “I am confident that we’re going to be able to reduce our troop strength in Afghanistan starting in July 2011, and I am in constant discussions with General McChrystal, as well as Ambassador Eikenberry, about the execution of that time frame.” Jonathan Alter’s new book about the Obama Administration quotes Vice President Biden saying, “In July of 2011, you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it.”
But CENTCOM Commander General David Petraeus told Congress last week that the date would be the “beginning of a process” and that withdrawal would be “conditions-based.” In reply to questions, he said, “There was a nuance to what the president said that was very important, that did not imply … a search for the light to turn off, or anything like that,” and “July 2011 is not the date we race for the exits, but is the date we begin a responsible drawdown.”
Putting the pieces together, Admiral Olson takes the most “kinetic” view of the situation in Afghanistan, the most traditional view of counterinsurgency. Ambassador Eikenberry now says he has confidence in the Karzai government, but Gen. McChrystal now appears to believe that “government in a box” is not enough and winning the people’s trust will take longer than he anticipated, and perhaps longer than he has. The difference between the President (and the Vice President) and Gen. Petraeus may be the difference between looking for the door and looking for success.
American troops in Afghanistan shouldn’t have to wonder which one is their mission.