WASHINGTON - General Stanley McChrystal confronts the specter of a collapse of
United States political support for the war in Afghanistan in coming months
comparable to the one that occurred in the Iraq War in late 2006.
On Thursday, McChrystal's message that his strategy will weaken the Taliban in
its heartland took its worst beating thus far, when he admitted that the
planned offensive in Kandahar city and surrounding districts is being delayed
until September at the earliest, because it does not have the support of the
Kandahar population or its leadership.
Equally damaging to the credibility of McChrystal's strategy was the Washington
Post report published on Thursday documenting
in depth the failure of February's offensive in Marjah.
The basic theme underlined in both stories - that the Afghan population in the
Taliban heartland is not cooperating with US and North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) forces - is likely to be repeated over and over again in
media coverage in the coming months.
The Kandahar operation, which McChrystal's staff has touted as the pivotal
campaign of the war, had previously been announced as beginning in June. But it
is now clear that McChrystal has understood for weeks that the most basic
premise of the operation turned out to be false.
"When you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them,"
said McChrystal, who was in London for a NATO conference. He didn't have to
spell out the obvious implication: the people of Kandahar don't want the
protection of foreign troops.
The Washington Post story on McChrystal's announcement reported "US officials"
had complained that "the support from Kandaharis that the United States was
counting on [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai to deliver has not materialized".
That explanation hardly makes McChrystal's war plan more credible, because
Karzai has made no secret of his preference for a negotiated settlement rather
than continued efforts to weaken the Taliban by occupying key Taliban
The report in the Post, written by National Editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran,
provided the first detailed evidence of the systematic non-cooperation of the
population of the district-sized area called Marjah with US troops.
Chandrasekaran reported that female US Marines tried to get Afghan women to
come to a meeting last week, but that not a single woman showed up. And despite
a NATO offer to hire as many as 10,000 residents for labor projects on
irrigation projects, only about 1,200 have signed up.
The US officials in Marjah are trying to convince local residents, in effect,
that they should trust the foreign troops to protect them from the Taliban, but
the Taliban are still able to threaten to punish those who collaborate with
About a dozen people have been killed for such collaboration already, and many
more have been warned to stop, according to Chandrasekaran's report.
"You can't get beyond security when you talk to people," a civilian official
working on development told the Post editor. "They don't want to entertain
discussions about projects."
Chandrasekaran also reported that representatives of rural development and
education projects came to Marjah initially and then retreated to the
province's center. They appear to be as convinced as the population that the
Taliban will continue to be a powerful presence in the region.
That was not supposed to happen when US-NATO forces declared victory in Marjah
three months ago. To ensure that no Taliban would be able to operate in the
area, McChrystal had deployed nearly 15,000 US, British and Afghan troops to
control Marjah's population.
Despite news media before and during the offensive referring to Marjah as a
"city of 80,000", it was an agricultural area whose population of about 35,000
was spread over some 120 square kilometers, based on the fewer than 50
dwellings shown on the Google Earth map of a 1.2 kilometer segment of the area.
That means the 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops provide a ratio of one occupying
soldier for every two members of the population. Counter-insurgency doctrine
normally calls for one soldier for every 50 people in the target area.
The fact that the US-NATO forces could not clear the Taliban from Marjah
despite such an unusually heavy concentration of troops is devastating evidence
that the McChrystal strategy has failed.
Throughout 2009, media coverage of the war was focused on plans for a new
offensive strategy that promised to turn the war around. But Thursday's double
dose of bad news suggests a cascade of media reports to come that will
reinforce the conclusion that the war is futile.
That in turn could lead to what might be an "Iraq 2006 moment" - the swift
unraveling of political support for the war on the part of the elected and
unelected political elite, as occurred in the Iraq War in the second half of
2006. The collapse of elite political support for the Iraq War followed months
of coverage of sectarian violence showing the US military had lost control of
McChrystal is still hoping, however, to be given much more time to change the
attitudes of the population in Helmand and Kandahar.
Chandrasekaran quoted "a senior US military official in Afghanistan" - the term
often used for McChrystal himself - as saying, "We're on an Afghan timetable,
and the Afghan timetable is not the American timetable." The official added,
"And that is the crux of the problem."
McChrystal and his boss, Central Command chief General David Petraeus, may now
be counting on pressure from the Republican Party to force President Barack
Obama to reverse his present position that the withdrawal of US troops will
begin next year.
That was the view expressed on Thursday by retired army lieutenant colonel and
former Petraeus aide John Nagl, a leading specialist on counter-insurgency who
is now president of the Center for a New American Security.
After the organization's annual conference, Nagle told Inter Press Service that
Obama will have to shift policy next year to give more time to McChrystal,
because he would otherwise be too vulnerable to Republican attacks on his
Afghanistan policy going into the 2012 election campaign.
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.