US Misfortunes in Afghanistan Will Not End
By Brig Asif Haroon Raja
With so many wise heads cobbled together in Kabul devising strategy how to finish the endgame in Afghanistan on a winning note, none has been able to come out with a workable and viable plan. George Bush led team intoxicated with power relied entirely on force and itched to crush any opposition coming their way. By the time they were unseated from power, they had inflicted incalculable harm to US prestige, image and credibility. The new team led by Obama promising a big change made no change in the overall war strategy. The only change Obama made was to shift centre of gravity from Iraq to Afghanistan and to crush Taliban-Al-Qaeda nexus through troop surge led by new military commanders Gen David Petraeus and Gen Stanley McChrystal who had supposedly done well on Iraq front. They were chosen to reverse the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. Policy makers did not learn any lesson when the troop surge failed to deliver in 2009. Rather, Helmand operation turned into a disaster resulting in large scale casualties of coalition troops.
Instead of making amends they are reinforcing failure through another troop surge of 30000 getting completed in August. Kandahar operation is being undertaken in September despite failure in Marjah. Vice President Joe Biden and many among Democrats were not in favor of sending additional forces as asked by Gen McChrystal. They suggested reducing number of troops and focusing on Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan. They preferred greater use of missile strikes and Special Forces operations in Pakistan, seen as the main base of al-Qaeda.
Having flipped-flopped between self-defeating mix of surge and exit, US leaders are again treading simultaneously on the twin path of use of force and reconciliation. It speaks of utter confusion and uncertainty prevailing in Washington how to convert defeat into victory. They want to sail in two boats and hope to cross the stream by bleeding the Afghans with stick and trying to recon ciliate with them through carrot. After nine years of constant use of force the American leadership has now grudgingly agreed to Karzai’s proposal of reconciliation with Taliban, but arrogance comes their way. They want to first sufficiently hemorrhage the Taliban and then negotiate with them from position of strength. Karzai has been mandated to win over second and third tier leadership of Taliban including some members of Taliban Shura and ordinary fighters to be able to isolate hardliners led by Mullah Omar, Haqqani and Hikmatyar.
The success of new plan hinges on successful Kandahar operation, winning over sizeable number of Taliban leaders, killing irreconcilable Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders based in Afghanistan and FATA, expanding and training ANA and police, and making them operationally worthy to be able to assume charge by mid 2011. This plan has run into snags at the very outset due to several reasons. Kandahar operation has been postponed for the third time since Marjah operation was a fiasco and Helmand province as a whole is still restive. Civil administration has been unable to take over the administrative control of the province because of apathetic condition of ANA, Afghan police and other departments. Police serving in Helmand are addicted to opium and cannabis. The police being thoroughly corrupt are most hated by Afghans. As per Pentagon’s assessment prepared in April 2010, of 121 districts in Afghanistan, regarded as critical in struggle against Taliban, none support the government, 29 were sympathetic, and 48 districts either empathized with insurgency or backed it. Karzai regime has shown no improvement in curbing corruption or improving governance.
Worst of all for USA is the rebellious streaks emerging in Karzai who has started doubting the ability of coalition forces to defeat Taliban movement. NATO countries are keen to pull out because of rising casualty rate and economic constraints. In 2010, up to 23 June 75 fatalities of NATO have taken place which makes it the worst month since 2001. In August 2009, 77 foreign soldiers lost their lives which had forced McChrystal to abandon forward posts and concentrate in main cities. So far 295 casualties have occurred this year. Dutch and Canada have already announced their decision to withdraw. Strains have appeared between US senior military leadership and US Administration because of disagreements on conduct of war.
As if these woes were not enough for Obama, an interview of Gen McChrystal and his aides using derisive language against top US civil leadership published by Rolling Stone Magazine created a storm in Washington. US top officials including Obama, Joe Biden, Ambassador Eikenberry, Holbrooke and James Jones were contemptuously criticized. McChrystal’s main crib was that Obama was uninterested and rather uncomfortable in discussing Afghan war during a meeting at Oval Office. James Jones was called a clown and Holbrooke a wounded animal. Fuming Obama summoned McChrystal in Washington. Ignoring his apology he gave him his piece of mind and told to resign. His resignation from his current post of commander US and NATO forces in Afghanistan has been accepted and CENTCOM Commander Gen Petraeus asked to takeover his duties as well. Robert Gates has now ruled out major pullout in July 2011.
This is not an ordinary event since it is for the first time after Gen Mac Arthur’s defiance where a top US military officer has openly disparaged US leadership and that too at a time when situation in Afghanistan is critical. McChrystal’s cynicism could be a tit for tat response to civil US officials who have been questioning his professional abilities. Some had even passed derogatory remarks. Many veterans in USA do not hold good opinion about him and rate him very poorly. His demand for 40000 additional troops was not well received in Washington. Joe Biden, James Jones and Eikenberry were among the opponents of troop surge. Even Obama remained in two minds for good about three months and had to finally give in reluctantly.
Unit commanders in Afghanistan had serious reservations about Gen McChrystal’s restraining order to trigger happy troops to avoid collateral damage to civilians. They wanted complete freedom of action to ask for air and gunship helicopter support against suspected targets. The Indians were also disturbed over his remarks that presence of Indians in Afghanistan was contributing towards destabilization in the region. McChrystal’s failure in Marjah and his timidity to start operation in Kandahar were not to the liking of the hawks. They are hungry for success which the General had not given. His closeness with Gen Kayani and his generous praises to Pak Army discomfited them as well as Indians. They were honing the axe for sometime and have finally got the opportunity to axe him. His sacking will not bring any material change in the overall policies nor would help in upturning the fortunes of US military in Afghan war.
While McChrystal must be thanking his stars for having got out of the hellhole without losing his face and job, it is now Gen Petraeus’s turn in the barrel. The whole load has suddenly come on his shoulders at a time when the US has run out of options and overall situation is murky. Coming months will prove how he acquits himself under most challenging times. He should remain wary of Israeli intrigues since Tel Aviv has not forgiven him for his anti-Israel briefing to Admiral Mike Mullen in JCSC on 16 January.
Brig Asif Haroon Raja is Member Board of Advisors, Opinion Maker. security and defence analyst and former Dean of Corps of Military Attaches in Cairo. He has been Directing Staff, Command and staff College Quetta. He has done his MSc in War studies.