No Exit from Afghanistan?

By William Dowell,
July 2010
(This article originally appeared in
The Essential Edge)

Lieutenant General Stan McChrystal is gone and the transition to General Petraeus  has been surprisingly smooth, but the internal contradictions and policy dilemmas that plague Afghanistan remain. The furor over the sacked general's intemperate words distracted attention from the cold reality that the current strategy is likely to require international forces to continue to shore up an increasingly discredited government in Kabul for the foreseeable future. The alternative is likely to be a Vietnam-style collapse. How did we reach this point?

McChrystal: Possiby too frank about his own feelings,
but Afghanistan's problems go deeper than that

The Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings that finished off McChrystal's career paints a picture of a gunslinger on testosterone overdrive.  The general  loves his "killers," "geniuses" and "maniacs."   He is the archetypical "warrior," a killing machine, who prefers the adrenaline of combat to diplomacy and formal banquets and disdains meeting the French.
Why did McChrystal, who is  intelligent, an excellent strategist, and reasonably sophisticated, allow himself to be booby-trapped by a Rolling Stone Reporter?  "It might have been a cri de coeur—an expression of ultimate exasperation," mused a diplomat with considerable experience in Afghanistan. "He knew that his plan was losing."

The language attributed to McChrystal and his staff is so bizarre that it raises the question of whether McChrystal and his entourage were really insensitive red necks, or simply men absorbed in a fog of warrior machismo. Was Afghanistan really entrusted to a bunch of crazies?
Testosterone-charged language is hardly unusual in the military.  Men who are regularly asked to face lethal threats often adopt a go-for-broke, he-man vocabulary.  In warfare, action trumps sensitivity and reflection.  The emphasis is on doing rather than thinking. In combat, the hesitation that results from thinking too much can easily prove fatal. The possibility of failure ending in defeat is always there, but can never be an option.

The world that soldiers face, which often involves confronting seemingly suicidal odds, creates a special mindset.  The models for behavior used to indoctrinate new military recruits promote daring to do the impossible.  They range from studying the battle of Thermopylae, where 7,000 Greeks briefly held off a million-man invading army of  Persians, to the Alamo, where Davy Crocket  and Jim Bowie died in a hopelessly outnumbered confrontation with General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.  In Israel, it is Masada, the mountaintop where the Zealots held out for months against Roman Legions, and finally committed suicide rather than be captured.  It used to be a practice for new recruits to be flown to Masada to take their oath before joining the Israeli Army.

The military clearly values heroes who do not accept the possibility of defeat, even in the face of overwhelming odds.  Hence the two most common ripostes in the US military: "The impossible takes a little bit longer," and "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."  Great slogans, but inevitably even heroes have to come to terms with reality. In the end, the metrics do count. In the mythic examples that the military venerates, celebrated heroes died in order to lay the foundation for a better future. Usually, they die resisting a direct attack that threatens their homeland as well as their ultimate existence. And it is usually a situation in which no other alternative is possible.  That was not the US experience in Vietnam, and it is not likely be the case in Afghanistan. In both of these situations,  the military was used to impose or at least bolster a political theory that local inhabitants found doubtful--especially when the alternative being offered to them turned out to be riddled with corruption.
In this context, it is not McChrystal's loose talk to a journalist that is important. It is really the question of whether it is the Pentagon that is best suited to resolving a complex political situation in which the likelihood of a military victory is already ruled out in advance. Despite lip service to finding a political solution, the military will nearly always prefer to force its enemy into submission or simply kill it rather than open negotiations that might actually make the enemy part of the solution. 

The tactics may change from conventional "war fighting" to counterinsurgency, and the targets may be refined, but the objective remains the same.  Identify the key actors and eliminate them.

That may not be feasible in Afghanistan. It was not in Vietnam.   In Vietnam, the North Vietnamese were able to add more manpower to their forces each year than the US was able to kill.  That was despite the fact that  America had more than 500,000 troops in country and virtually unlimited firepower.  In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, terrain is a major consideration.  Vietnam's border was easy to penetrate. It was impossible to stop supplies and reinforcements from moving in, and the jungle provided such efficient cover that the opposing forces could easily retreat and hide whenever they needed to.  I remember a friend who worked in intelligence and reported directly to the White House describing the situation around Nha Trang in the early 1970s.  "We've tracked radio transmissions from every North Vietnamese unit down to the squad level," he said. "Each one is marked on the map with a small red pin. When you look at the map, it looks like someone fired a shot gun at it with red ink."  I asked what had kept the US from simply calling in B-52 strikes and wiping them out.   "We have," he said, "and it has had absolutely no effect. They are still there."

I spent six years in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was the time that it took for the US to come to terms with a reality that should have been obvious from the start. Regardless of one's political views, the war in Vietnam was simply unwinnable for the US.

Eight years later, I walked with fellow journalist, Ed Girardet,  and a small group of mujaheddin carrying supplies from the Pakistani border to Ahmed Shah Massoud in Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley. We walked in broad daylight along a path only a few hundred yards from the perimeter of Baghram airbase. At the time it was held by the Russians.  The impossibility of anyone, Afghan or foreigner, obtaining a military victory in that uncontrollable and immensely diverse terrain was immediately obvious. We spent an hour on a mountaintop, overlooking the Panjshir, counting Russian helicopters flying a few hundred feet over our heads.  We had wrapped ourselves in Afghan blankets.  To the pilots overhead, we looked like any of the random rocks around us. I counted 75 helicopters.  None of them saw us. In that strikingly beautiful, but vast and impenetrable terrain, we were all but invisible.  Russian troops were everywhere, but the danger, although potentially deadly,  was really very random. It was a kind of inconclusive roulette. Afghanistan is very different from Vietnam.  The US does not have 500,000 troops to engage in endless war, nor does it have the political will that existed when Americans still believed that there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. Of course there is the introduction of robots, predator drones, and newer sophisticated technology.  But it is unlikely that a few new gadgets will be enough in the greater scheme of things to ensure victory.  Even more relevant, the country is a patchwork of rival ethnic and clan groups that see little benefit in helping each other and will never fully commit themselves to a foreign power that they see as an interloper on their own territory.
It is also worth taking a look at the kind of damage that results from the use of destructive force: does killing a key Taliban commander reduce the problem, or does it simply clear the way for an even more radical and less reasonable insurgent to take over? Does it reduce the level of violence, or escalate it? By engaging in remote control assassinations with predator drones, are we encouraging a political solution or rendering an eventual solution virtually impossible?  Does engaging in abusive interrogations and torture help us improve political stability or create even more radical extremism and confirm the worst suspicions about western immorality?  What does extraordinary rendition—the act of sending suspects to third world countries for abusive interrogation or detention that would not be legal in the US—do to our own commitment to justice?

These are not questions which most military men are trained to look at objectively.  I spent four years in the US Army, nearly half of it in Vietnam, and I was struck by the fact that officers, confronted with complex cultural situations, often seemed less intelligent than some of the men under their command. The reason, I concluded, was that they were trained to act rather than to think, to make orders handed down to them work no matter what the cost, rather than to allow themselves to question whether the orders actually made any sense or not.  The approach was captured in the opening lines of the Charge of the Light Brigade, "Theirs not to question why; theirs but to do or die."

The military is in a sense a weapon composed of men. Its purpose is the application of force, but it is not equipped to determine objectively when and how that force should be used. It depends on a civilian intelligence to direct it. And that is what is missing in the current international involvement  in Afghanistan. The military is a part of the solution, but by its very nature, it is extremely difficult for it to conceptualize the solution on its own. Certainly there are civilians involved in policy, but they are often not listened to.  The US calls the shots in Afghanistan and it is increasingly clear that Washington has lost confidence in the ability of civilians to provide answers that work.  As a result the US State Department has a budget that is less than a tenth of the Pentagon's budget.   But while Washington is clearly betting on the Pentagon to solve the problem, the Pentagon has failed to do just that.  General Petraeus—despite the enormous hopes pinned on him—is not likely to do much better.  Petraeus' first act after replacing McChrystal was to call a meeting of key players involved in ISAF.  What was noticeable was the absence of Afghans in the meeting.

It is not as though this is anything new.  The conflict over strategy in Afghanistan surfaced months ago in a series of leaked memos while the Obama administration was struggling to devise a coherent policy.  Back then, McChrystal argued forcefully for an Iraq-style surge.  He wanted another 40,000 US troops along with another 10,000 troops from NATO allies. If he didn't get it, the western supported government in Afghanistan was likely to collapse. The idea was to expand  the US military presence enough to break the momentum of the Taliban's aggressive gains, and then to get out.  The argument was that once the Taliban's resistance was crushed, civil affairs and development projects could take over and start to win the Afghan population's hearts and minds. After that,  a NATO-supported civil government would have a chance to take hold.  Counter insurgency or COIN became the catchword of the day.  It sounded reasonable enough, and President Obama went along with a 30,000-troop increase, which from his point of view was about as much as the US public was likely to tolerate.  The Europeans and Canada were already showing signs of wanting to pull out.

An opposing point of view was presented by the US ambassador to  Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, himself a former US Army general, but clearly someone who had escaped the bubble of military thinking and was now  willing to consider a broader analysis of the situation.  In a series of memos also leaked to the press,  Eikenberry argued that a troop surge would be counterproductive.  His reasoning was fairly straightforward.  Afghanistan's western-backed president Hamid Karzai has long-term goals that are quite different from the US. While Washington wants Afghanistan to stand on its own feet, Karzai's objective is to guarantee that he has permanent US protection.  He knows that the moment the US pulls out, he will be finished, but with the US ensnared in Afghanistan, Karzai's fragile power base can be maintained by payoffs financed both by corruption and western aid money.

Eikenberry warned that as long as the US went for the military option, Karzai could stall efforts at reform.  Moreover, by playing McChrystal off against the reform faction in Obama's White House, Karzai could effectively neutralize pressure from the US to pull his act together.  Eikenberry was overruled in the debate with McChrystal, but subsequent events suggest that he was right.

Security has deteriorated under the McChrystal plan and casualties have risen.  There is no indication that Afghanistan is making any progress towards self-rule.  Sure, various development projects look reasonably positive, but how long will they survive against a determined enemy that mixes local intimidation with populist propaganda against foreign intervention?  War tends to be a pass-fail test. The winner takes all, and a few promising projects are not going to have any lasting impact unless a comprehensive solution is reached.   That won't happen as long as civilians, and more to the point, innocent women and children in people's families, clans and tribes are being killed and maimed. The more foreign troops that are in country, the more the political poison of collateral damage is likely to expand.  In the long run, as Kipling pointed out in his novel,  "The Man Who Would Be King," The beauty and richness of Afghanistan can be exotically tempting, but the dreams of glory that it creates tend to be largely a mirage.

What is more important is the damage that involvement in Afghanistan is likely to have on western societies, and specifically on the US.  The fraying of what until now have been core American values—a belief in the rule of law, Habeas Corpus, a refusal to engage in acts such as torture or imprisonment  without legal recourse,  the rejection of political assassination—is becoming evident, and it is already raising serious questions about the depth of Barack Obama's commitment to justice.
The diversion of badly needed resources to an adventure that seems doomed to failure is also apparent.  The CIA's claim that it needs to spend $100 million to hire military contractors, a euphemism for mercenaries, to protect US consulates in Herat and Kandahar over the coming year is a case in point that is made even more questionable by the fact that the company awarded the contract is Xe, formerly known as Blackwater, the company that was banned from Iraq for unacceptable behavior.   The bottom line is that we find ourselves telling our own citizens in critical need of decent health care that we can't afford it, while we pay dream salaries to adventurers in foreign lands.

What all of this underscores is the inability of policy planners to provide a sensible strategy that goes beyond the tight parameters of the military mindset. The situation has evolved to the point where the military defines the options almost by default. Clearly a balance needs to be restored, and there needs to be a larger vision of what is actually taking place and how to deal with it.  Obama's firing of McChrystal is a perfect opportunity to reset our priorities.

Despite its tone of bravado,  Michael Hastings' article in Rolling Stone does a pretty good job of laying out many of these issues.  Hastings provides a gripping snapshot of the mindset of McChrystal and his staff.  As Hasting said afterwards, "I thought the public should know."

Read the Eikenberry Memos, click here
Read General McChrystal's original assessment, click here