Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has submitted a grim report to the Obama administration that warns of failure without additional U.S. troops and a change in strategy.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has submitted a grim report to the Obama administration that warns of failure without additional U.S. troops and a change in strategy. David Gilkey/NPR
It is hard to ignore the echoes of another recent war when reading Gen. Stanley McChrystal's leaked report that warns about looming failure in Afghanistan without additional U.S. troops.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan never refers explicitly to the U.S. experience in Iraq (other than to note the ongoing drawdown in U.S. forces), but that conflict clearly underlies his grim analysis and some of the key counterinsurgency lessons that he draws upon.
Military officials have been signaling for weeks that more troops are necessary to quell the Taliban insurgency and establish security in Afghanistan. McChrystal's confidential report to the Pentagon and the administration was leaked to The Washington Post this week, offering insight into the military's assessment of the war and the challenges facing President Obama.
McChrystal writes that U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan are too preoccupied with protecting themselves. Instead, the military "must shift its approach to bring security and normalcy to the people and shield them from insurgent violence, corruption and coercion."
Compare that to language in a 2006 news release from the Bush White House explaining the strategic shift that would accompany its military surge in Iraq: "Political and economic progress are unlikely absent a basic level of security."
On Afghanistan, McChrystal writes, "There is also a crisis of confidence among Afghans — in both their government and the international community — that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents." In 2006, the Bush administration conceded, "Iraqis are increasingly disillusioned with coalition efforts."
The similarities are striking. In both cases, military commanders sought to focus more on guarding civilians and working to reduce the alarming number of civilian casualties. Both strategic shifts were conditioned on additional troops. And commanders warned in each case that U.S. casualties were likely to spike.
As the military continues to build up U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to reach Obama's earlier target of 68,000 by the end of the year, the White House now faces a fundamental decision of whether to commit even more forces or narrow its focus there. Obama himself seemed to sum it up in an interview Sunday on CNN when he asked, "Are we pursuing the right strategy?"
McChrystal, Obama's handpicked commander in Afghanistan, doesn't believe so. So why is this report coming out on Afghanistan three years after commanders diagnosed similar problems in Iraq?
Anthony Cordesman, a security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says these are not new findings for the U.S. generals and diplomats working in Afghanistan, who have watched the Taliban steadily expand their influence since 2004.
"There is a significant consensus that the problems in Afghanistan were becoming critical during the Bush administration, but the Bush administration, because of its focus on Iraq, chose not to react and not to face these issues," he says. "These are not lessons that have suddenly emerged any more than the threat has."
He and other experts also caution on drawing too many comparisons between the problems and, in particular, the solutions.
President Bush's strategic shift on Iraq came with a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops, but its success was mostly dependent on the unexpected move by Sunni insurgents to turn against al-Qaida in Iraq and cut deals with U.S. forces. In that case, Sunni groups became fed up with the predominantly foreign terrorist group, and looked to the United States for an alliance.
"The Sunnis were dealing with us from a position of weakness and desperate for a deal," says Wayne White, a former top State Department intelligence analyst. "We have nothing like that this time around. With Afghanistan, there is no deal that can be worked out with the insurgents."
The shift on Iraq also came amid grisly sectarian violence that gripped the entire country. "The violence was so gruesome that Iraqis were just yearning for order," White says. In Afghanistan, however, "they have let the situation deteriorate so much that they have lost the Afghan people, particularly in areas near the epicenter of the violence."
The Iraqi government in 2006 was dysfunctional, but it still maintained a functioning bureaucracy that operated in most provinces to some degree. In Afghanistan, as McChrystal notes, "there is little connection between the central government and the local population, particularly in rural areas."
Even worse, a combination of incompetence, corruption and outright criminality has eroded Afghans' support for their government, he adds. Allegations of rampant vote-rigging in the recent election have only worsened the government's reputation.
When the Bush administration sent the additional troops into Iraq, commanders warned that U.S. casualties were likely to rise. There was a spike, although it was not as high as many experts had feared.
McChrystal offers a similar caution for Afghanistan: "It is realistic to expect that Afghan and coalition casualties will increase" until the international coalition and the Afghan government regain the initiative.
But without the prospect of a deal with Taliban insurgents, and with Afghanistan's remote, more forbidding geography, this strategic shift could well be bloodier.
"The military may be underestimating the casualties that will result from implementing this policy now given our low popularity among the population and the abysmal image of the Afghan government we will be operating on behalf of," White says.
Of course, President Obama has yet to approve McChrystal's recommendations. And while the general has reportedly prepared a request for up to 30,000 additional soldiers, he has yet to submit it to the Pentagon.
"It is one thing to have the right plan and the right strategy, but it's another to give them the right resources to act," Cordesman says. "So far, the president has not made that choice."