by Eric Ruder
October 7, 2009
The U.S. war on Afghanistan began eight years ago, and yet today, the U.S. seems further than ever from achieving its goals. The Obama administration is now embroiled in a debate over whether to carry out a further escalation on top of the 21,000 troops Barack Obama ordered to Afghanistan earlier this year.
Gareth Porter is an investigative journalist who writes regularly for Inter Press Service about U.S. foreign policy in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. His latest book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.
He spoke toabout where the debate in the political and military establishment is headed, and what that will mean for Afghanistan.
WHAT’S THE intent behind Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s report on Afghanistan? The tone of the report was much more pessimistic than past ones, and it was attached to a request for 40,000 more U.S. troops. Is this the Pentagon’s attempt to demand something of Obama that he can’t deliver and thus–as in the Vietnam era–shift blame for the crisis to “political leaders” who “tied the hands” of the military?
I’M VERY much persuaded that this is one of the things that McChrystal is thinking about. His report is so remarkably candid in terms of acknowledging the obstacles within Afghan society and the government to the success of any possible counterinsurgency war the U.S. might conceivably wage.
The report has to be considered an effort to paint a very pessimistic picture so that if, in fact, McChrystal is forced to go ahead with the troops he now has, or even if he gets more troops, he is able to point to the report that outlines a situation where failure, if it should occur, wasn’t his fault. I think he suspects very strongly that the mission isn’t going to work.
DO YOU think there’s any chance that McChrystal will get the 40,000 additional troops?
I THINK there’s zero chance he’s going to get 40,000 troops. The figure is a tip-off that he’s almost inviting rejection by Obama.
I suspect that he was already picking up clear signals from his contacts in Washington and in Florida at the Centcom command headquarters that Obama and some of his civilian advisers were very much disillusioned with the idea of fighting a long counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan.
I think that was certainly part of the context in which he wrote that assessment and asked for a number of troops so high that he must have known there was little chance he would actually get it.
HOW DID the U.S. war effort get to the point where such an escalation is even part of the debate? We had been told that the situation in Afghanistan had stabilized, and then this summer there was a sharp rise in the number of U.S. combat casualties and a sense that the Taliban had regained the initiative.
THIS IS a very important question, and I don’t know enough of the story to be able to fill in all the blanks. There is a developing acknowledgment that the warlord-dominated structure of politics in Afghanistan is a serious problem.
One of the things that I do know has happened over the last several months is that the U.S. military and some other NATO military establishments have been for the first time conducting interviews with local tribal leaders and village notables. They’re asking them what their grievances are, their honest assessment of the situation in their local and regional context, and so on.
It may be surprising, but after eight years in Afghanistan, this is something that the U.S. still hadn’t done. They had no real basis for getting real feedback from the villages of Afghanistan where the population overwhelmingly is located.
So I have a feeling that for the first time, some of this information was starting to trickle up to the command level, and that may have been one factor in the degree to which the initial assessment by McChrystal was pessimistic. It also may account for the conclusions in the combined civilian/military campaign plan that was completed in August of this year, and that was even more pessimistic than the McChrystal report in some ways.
It did not have some of the pulled punches that I found in the McChrystal paper, which, for example, stated that there was a “crisis of confidence” in the Afghan government rather than a “crisis of legitimacy.” The McChrystal report also failed to acknowledge that there is substantial support for the Taliban as the only available alternative to a government that is universally reviled, at least in the Pashtun region.
I think that this is probably a factor that has started to color the assessment both in the military and also from the civilian side of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
We are starting from a base of intelligence, if you will, on the nature of the Taliban and why it’s so successful that is about as close to zero as you can imagine–in a war that has been going on for eight years now. This is one of the scandals that hasn’t been written about.
The U.S. government and other NATO military contingents are utterly without real intelligence about the Taliban and the situation in the countryside. They know virtually nothing, and they have never bothered to really try to understand it.
This is a measure of the complete arrogance of the foreign military contingents in Afghanistan, especially the U.S. What intelligence they do have often comes from reports from people working for a warlord who are thus interested in skewing the information to serve the interests of their warlord boss.
A very high proportion of the intelligence that the U.S. military has collected in Afghanistan comes directly or indirectly from the warlords themselves or their minions. For the most part, this “intelligence” was leading the U.S. to do the bidding of the warlords.
This is a large reason for the fact that the U.S. military has had so many cases of carrying out air strikes against wedding parties. These strikes end up targeting tribal rivals of the warlord providing the “intelligence.” This has happened over and over again.
This is certainly a problem that isn’t fixed–and isn’t going to be fixed by substituting a pessimistic initial assessment and a relatively pessimistic campaign plan for the previously optimistic ones.
OR BY bringing in a huge influx of new troops.
EXACTLY. MORE troops are not going to help at all, and it is arguable that it will alienate the Afghan people even more and hasten the approach of the day when there will be an overt political movement within the cities against the U.S. and other foreign military presence.
THE BASIC assumption of the McChrystal counterinsurgency strategy seems to be that an increase in the number of troops will give the U.S. the ability to “clear and hold” territory, protect civilians and become the guardian of law and order–which in turn would confer legitimacy on the central government. Do you think this strategy has a realistic chance of success? Secondly, does the fraud surrounding the recent Afghan election further complicate this strategy?
THE SHORT answer is no, it’s not feasible, and it can’t be feasible under any foreseeable circumstances.
You can talk about inducting hundreds of thousands more troops and police into the security structure, but these people are either going to be on the payroll of one of the warlords, as 125,000 to 150,000 armed men already are, or they’re going to be extremely reluctant soldiers, particularly if they’re Pashtuns.
If they’re outside the Pashtun region and come from one of the other ethnic minorities that are anti-Pashtun, they won’t be reluctant to fight in their own areas, but I don’t think you’d be able to get them to go into a Pashtun region–and if you did, they wouldn’t be effective troops.
There are so many contradictions built into the situation that it’s just impossible to cook up a scenario under which the U.S. can do something to fundamentally change the realities that were described accurately in McChrystal’s initial assessment and the combined civilian/military campaign plan.
The election sheds a great deal of light on this, of course. Not simply because of the massive fraud in the election, although that’s an indicator of something going on, but it’s relevant because President Hamid Karzai was forced to make deals with all of the warlords throughout the country–to give them even more privileges politically than they already had, in some cases carving either new provinces or parts of provinces under the control of the warlord in question, and in other cases assuring warlords that they wouldn’t face any legal action for their war crimes or for any other crimes they might be guilty of.
And in every case, he assured them that no move is going to be made to diminish their de facto power in the provinces. This, of course, is the essence of the problem that the so-called government and the foreign military presence face in trying to combat the Taliban.
The Taliban is so strong in the Pashtun region in particular–although it’s not strong exclusively there–because of the grievances against the warlord-dominated security forces and officials in those provinces. These forces are unaccountable, and they constantly carry out depredations, often violent ones, against civilians.
As a result, people who aren’t sympathetic to the Taliban’s ideology or version of jihadism are ready in most instances to support the Taliban in order to bring back a modicum of peace and security.
THERE’S A growing debate within the Obama administration about how to proceed, and also opposition to the war among the public, with a majority now saying the war isn’t worth fighting. Can you talk about the impact this is having?
IT’S CLEAR that Obama and Joe Biden have become extremely skeptical that the U.S. ought to be trying to carry out a counterinsurgency strategy. They’re looking for a way out of a war that Obama has already fueled by sending 21,000 troops this year and making a major statement that gave his blessing to increase the escalation.
There’s no doubt that Obama has been influenced by the shift in public opinion. I think it has given him a bit more spine than he would otherwise have had to stand up to the military leadership and his field commander, who are clearly pushing him to agree to more troops.
Although, as I pointed out earlier, I suspect there’s a certain shadow of doubt even in the minds of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the chair of the joint chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, that this is going to work, because this is such an extreme situation.
I have to underline the fact that no war the U.S. has ever been involved in has been so clearly without the minimum conditions that make it possible to imagine the U.S. winning. It’s just not there.
Having said that, I think there are top officials of this administration who are still supporting the counterinsurgency war–for example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. They are still in line with the field commanders and Gen. David Petraeus to support more troops for Afghanistan.
So I don’t take it for granted that the outcome of this is going to be that Obama is able to call off the dogs or even reduce the level of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan over the next year.
I think the situation almost inevitably is going to produce a compromise. That’s the way these things work in the U.S. national security state. The president can have all the doubts in the world and think this is a terrible idea. In the end, he’s going to be compelled for political reasons, despite the fact that public opinion is against the war, to make some compromise with his national security advisers. Ultimately, that’s what’s most likely to happen, but I hope I’m wrong.
I recently wrote an article in which I described the astonishingly strong parallel between the meetings going on right now and continuing in the next few weeks in the White House about Afghanistan, and the meetings in June 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson was desperate to find a way out of Vietnam–to avoid agreeing to tens of thousands more troops.
In the end, he caved in and agreed to the request. He didn’t have the support of his own defense secretary, Robert McNamara, who supported the military leadership instead.
That’s why I think the key swing vote in this is Defense Secretary Robert Gates. If Gates, as I believe to be the case, is supporting the military on this, I think it’s going to be harder for Obama to give a firm “no.”