Doubts grow on McChrystal's war plan
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - Although General Stanley McChrystal's plan for wresting the Afghan
provinces of Helmand and Kandahar from the Taliban is still in its early stages
of implementation, there are already signs that the setbacks and obstacles it
has experienced have raised serious doubts among top military officials in
Washington about whether the plan of the commander of North Atlantic Treaty
Organization forces in Afghanistan is going to work.
Skepticism about McChrystal's ambitious aims was implicit in the way the
Pentagon report on the war, issued April 26, assessed the progress of the
campaign in Marjah. Now, it has been given even more pointed expression by an
unnamed "senior military official" quoted in a column in the Washington Post
Sunday by David Ignatius.
The senior military officer criticized McChrystal's announcement
in February that he had "a government in a box, ready to roll in" for the
Marjah campaign, for having created "an expectation of rapidity and efficiency
that doesn't exist now", according to Ignatius.
The same military official is also quoted as pointing out that parts of Helmand
that were supposed to have been cleared by the offensive in February and March
are in fact still under Taliban control and that Afghan government performance
in the wake of the offensive had been disappointing, according to Ignatius.
The outlook at the Pentagon and the White House on the nascent Kandahar
offensive is also pessimistic, judging from the comment to Ignatius by an
unnamed "senior administration official". The official told Ignatius the
operation is "still a work in progress", observing that McChrystal's command
was still trying to decide how much of the local government the military could
"salvage" and how much "you have to rebuild".
That is an obvious reference to the dilemma faced by the US military in
Kandahar: Ahmed Wali Karzai, the much-despised brother of President Hamid
Karzai, controls the entire government structure. On the other hand, the
US-supported provincial governor now being counted on to introduce governance
reforms is generally regarded by Kandaharis as powerless, as Jonathan Partlow
reported in the Washington Post on April 29.
These negative comments on the campaign in Helmand and Kandahar by senior
Washington officials pointing to problems with McChrystal's plan suggest that
even more serious concerns are being expressed behind the scenes.
The Pentagon report on the war betrays similar doubts about the strategy being
carried out by McChrystal, both by what it highlights and what it fails to say.
Damning with faint praise, the report says the offensive waged in the Marjah
region and elsewhere in Helmand achieved only "some success in clearing
insurgents from their strongholds".
Paralleling the quote from the "senior military official", the report says
progress in "governance and development" has been "slow". Demonstrating that
the Afghan government could provide "governance and development" had been
announced as the central aim of the offensive in Marjah.
The section of the Pentagon report on the state of the insurgency goes even
further toward declaring that the McChrystal plan had failed to achieve a
central objective, concluding that the Taliban strategy for countering the
offensive "has proven effective in slowing the spread of governance and
The key finding is that the Taliban have "re-infiltrated the cleared areas" of
Helmand and "dissuaded locals from meeting with the Afghan government" by
executing some who had initially collaborated.
The overall negative tone of the analysis of what happened in Helmand appears
to reflect a decision by Pentagon officials to withhold its vote of confidence
in the McChrystal war plan.
The only feature of McChrystal's strategy that the Pentagon report treats as
having proven effective against the insurgents is its most controversial
element: the program of Special Operations Forces (SOF) night raids against
suspected Taliban in their homes, which has stirred anger among Afghans
everywhere the SOF have operated.
In an indirect expression of doubt about the impact of the McChrystal strategy,
the report suggests that the willingness of Taliban insurgent leaders to
negotiate will be influenced not by the offensives aimed at separating the
population from the Taliban but by the "combined effects" of the high-level
arrests of Taliban leaders in Pakistan and targeted raids by special operations
forces against "lower level commanders".
In fact, Taliban leaders have already indicated a readiness to negotiate,
although not on terms the Barack Obama administration is yet prepared to
McChrystal appears to have responded to the setbacks he has encountered in
Helmand and Kandahar by setting aside his most ambitious counterinsurgency aim:
the creation of a large zone of control covering both provinces. In late
January, an official working for McChrystal at the International Security
Assistance Force (ISAF) told Inter Press Service, "The first thing you'll see
is an effort to establish a contiguous security zone in Helmand and Kandahar
accounting for 85% of the economic resources."
McChrystal referred to that same aim in his interview with the Financial Times
published on January 25. "If we can protect 85% of the people and deny access
to them from the insurgents, it's pretty hard for them to have a significant
effect," he said.
But since the end of the Marjah operation, neither McChrystal nor any other
ISAF official has said anything about a plan to establish a "contiguous
McChrystal has to provide a one-year assessment of the progress of his strategy
in December, and senior administration officials told the Washington Post in
late March that he will have to show that the "overall transition to stability
and vastly improved governance" has been completed by that time.
McChrystal was confident in a talk in Kabul in late January excerpted in a NATO
video that, by December, he would be able to "show with hard numbers and
things, real progress".
But the failure to clear Taliban guerrillas from areas where they have been
strongest, along with the inability to break the power of Karzai's brother in
Kandahar and the absence of support from the population and tribal elders for
military occupation in the province, is likely to make administration officials
highly skeptical of such a case.
McChrystal's staff has made no secret of their hope to convince the US public
that his strategy is making such progress in Helmand and Kandahar that it
should be extended past mid-2011, when Obama has said he would begin a US
military withdrawal and transition to Afghan responsibility for security.
After interviewing members of McChrystal's team in Kabul, pro-war journalist
Robert Kaplan wrote in the April issue of Atlantic magazine, "The very prospect
of some success by July 2011 increases the likelihood that US forces will be in
Afghanistan in substantial numbers for years."
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.