7 years, 6 months ago
60 Minutes did a report on General Stanley McChrystal in which the main theme was that General McChrystal is trying to deprogram eight years of bad habits in Afghanistan. Killing civilians, running drivers off of the road, and generally being insensitive to the human terrain have kept us from winning the campaign. It’s the ham handedness that is killing the effort – or so the report goes. The exercise of air power has come to a virtual standstill in Afghanistan, and to contrast the current state of affairs with the previous, 60 minutes shows McChrystal visiting a town’s marketplace versus what I recognized to be a YouTube video of an A-10 run against a Taliban hideout.
The interviewer presses the issue of combat power.
“The hallmark of American military power was its overwhelming firepower. Now you’re describing a situation in which firepower is almost beside the point?” Martin asked.
“You know, the favorite saying of, ‘To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ We can’t operate that way. We can’t walk with only a hammer in our hands,” McChrystal replied.
Thus McChrystal has issued a tactical directive that has essentially redounded to revised rules of engagement. But this narrative is not compelling to those who have followed the campaign. True enough, there are too many troops at large megabases in Afghanistan who ought to be on FOBs. True enough, the campaign has had to rely very heavily on air power. The large megabases can be emptied, but the need for air power still exists due to the force size.
The Taliban now have a permanent presence in 80% of Afghanistan due to lack of forces to counter their efforts and provide security. While improvements can be made in the efficiency of the campaign, the narrative that bad habits have caused the diminution of the effort thus far is made-for-television theater, ending perfectly with a champion general who can repair the broken campaign and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
But it isn’t that simple, and McChrystal know it. His request for more troops is meeting electoral politics head on, with political advisers being lined up to bolster a potential coming decision not to send more troops. The never serious National Security Advisor Jim Jones has said of the deadline for deciding more troop levels “I don’t have a deadline in my mind. I think the most important thing is to do it right. But it is going to have a high priority in the administration to do this pretty relentlessly. We have a lot of other things on the table as well.”
Since no thinking American wants the National Security Advisor to worry about “other things on the table” as opposed to national security, the administration knows that it needs more firepower if it’s to deny McChrystal his troops. Enter Colin Powell, who went on record saying “The question the president has to answer is, ‘What will more troops do?’ ” You have to not just add troops. You need a clear definition of your mission and then you can determine whether you need more troops or other resources.”
As if on cue, Jones warns that “it remains possible that, after a decision on strategy by the president, McChrystal might change his mind about the need for more troops. “We will ask General McChrystal, and say, ‘Okay, now that you’ve heard what our strategy is, does this affect your thinking in terms of your resources and, if so, how?’ ”
What would that strategy be? As advocated by Senator Kerry, it’s likely to be a small footprint model, more oriented towards counterterrorism rather than counterinsurgency, thus returning us to the initial stages of Operation Enduring Freedom and the main reason we have watched the slow demise of the campaign.
McChrystal wants to conduct counterinsurgency, but not just any kind of counterinsurgency. He has made protecting the population the center of gravity, the be all and end all of our efforts. This has led to the tactical directive concerning kinetics when civilians could possibly be present. The McChrystal interview with 60 minutes focused on the issue of civilian deaths above every other aspect of the effort.
But in a report that got almost no attention in military blogs, the locals aren’t giving this message to McChrystal. Concerning the recent targeting of a stolen fuel tanker by an F-15, McChrystal found unexpected support from the Afghans.
At midday Saturday, after visiting the hospital and flying over the bombing site in a helicopter, the team met with two local officials. The NATO officers were expecting anger and calls for compensation. What they received was a totally unanticipated sort of criticism.
“I don’t agree with the rumor that there were a lot of civilian casualties,” said one key local official, who said he did not want to be named because he fears Taliban retribution. “Who goes out at 2 in the morning for fuel? These were bad people, and this was a good operation.”
A few hours later, McChrystal arrived at the reconstruction team’s base in Kunduz. A group of leaders from the area, including the chairman of the provincial council and the police chief, were there to meet him. So, too, were members of an investigative team dispatched by President Hamid Karzai.
McChrystal began expressing sympathy “for anyone who has been hurt or killed.”
The council chairman, Ahmadullah Wardak, cut him off. He wanted to talk about the deteriorating security situation in Kunduz, where Taliban activity has increased significantly in recent months. NATO forces in the area, he told the fact-finding team before McChrystal arrived, need to be acting “more strongly” in the area.
His concern is shared by some officials at the NATO mission headquarters, who contend that German troops in Kunduz have not been confronting the rise in Taliban activity with enough ground patrols and comprehensive counterinsurgency tactics.
“If we do three more operations like was done the other night, stability will come to Kunduz,” Wardak told McChrystal. “If people do not want to live in peace and harmony, that’s not our fault.”
McChrystal seemed to be caught off guard.
“We’ve been too nice to the thugs,” Wardak continued.
As McChrystal drove to the bombing site — defying German suggestions that the area was too dangerous — one senior NATO official noted that the lack of opposition from local officials, despite relatively clear evidence that some civilians were killed, could help to de-escalate tensions.
“We got real lucky here,” the official said.
But McChrystal still had a message to deliver. Even if the Afghan officials were not angry, he certainly did not seem pleased.
After fording the muddy river to see the bombing site — getting his pants wet up to his knees — he addressed a small group of journalists at the reconstruction team headquarters and said it was “clear there were some civilians harmed at that site.” He said NATO would fully investigate the incident.
“It’s a serious event that’s going to be a test of whether we are willing to be transparent and whether we are willing to show that we are going to protect the Afghan people,” he said.
McChrystal was caught off guard because what he heard from the Afghans doesn’t match the doctrine. McChrystal knows doctrine, and the Afghans know unintended consequences. They know that Taliban theft of fuel tankers meets with doom to the people around the tanker (unless McChrystal has his way). They know that if the rules say that no fires can be directed towards domiciles that could potentially have noncombatants, even in self defense, the Taliban will surround themselves with noncombatants, in the end making it more dangerous for everyone.
To run the campaign as McChrystal wants – with diminished air support, with no fires towards areas where noncombatants could be located, with extensive dismounted patrols, and with no artillery support – means that he probably needs even more troops than he has requested. It may not matter if the Obama administration has its way.