Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
Back in March 1951, to vent his unhappiness with the way President Harry Truman, a Democrat, was interfering with his conduct of the ongoing Korean War, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur sent a letter to Speaker of the House Joseph W. Martin, a Republican. In that letter, quickly released to the public, MacArthur had expressed wonderment that anyone would disagree with his own assessment of the stakes in Korea. Petraeus was arguably the most overtly political senior military officer to grace the American stage since MacArthur. As with MacArthur’s letter to Speaker Martin, his September 4 interview with Gerson constituted a veiled challenge to the authority of the commander in chief.
Once again, as had been the case in Iraq, the political clock and the military clock were out of sync. Obama wanted time to deliberate. McChrystal wanted an immediate go-ahead. Petraeus’s interview turned out to be only the opening salvo in an effort to pressure the green-as-grass commander in chief without personal military experience into giving the seasoned warfighter whatever he wanted.
A leaked copy of McChrystal’s assessment soon made it into the hands of
The Washington Post,
which on September 14 published a long account that included extracts from the actual document.
In short order, the full sixty-six pages were available to anyone with access to the internet. McChrystal himself got into the act, appearing on
and then promoting his plan via a highly publicized presentation in London. After the London speech, a reporter asked McChrystal if he could envision any alternative to a counterinsurgency approach in Afghanistan. “The short answer is: no.”
Not everyone agreed. Vice President Joe Biden for one strongly argued against McChrystal’s proposal. The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, sided with the vice president. Lending Eikenberry’s dissent additional authority was the fact that he was himself a retired army lieutenant general who had presided over the Afghanistan War from 2005 to 2007.
In cables dated November 6 and November 9, Ambassador Eikenberry questioned the relevance of “clear, hold, and build” to actually existing conditions. Acknowledging that U.S. forces would undoubtedly be able to clear parts of Afghanistan, Eikenberry argued that expectations of Afghans moving on to hold and build were wildly unrealistic. A “surge” in Afghanistan would serve chiefly to “increase Afghan dependence,” he wrote, thereby postponing rather than advancing the day when foreign troops would be able to depart. More to the point, McChrystal’s proposed counterinsurgency campaign was irrelevant to the central issue, which was Pakistan—“the single greatest source of Afghan instability.” As long as Pakistani authorities believed that it served their interests for Afghan militants to move freely back and forth across the Pakistani border, the insurgency was going to persist. COIN offered no remedy to that problem. Above all, Eikenberry cautioned against the view that sending more U.S. troops offered the sole plausible policy alternative.
The Eikenberry cables also leaked, thereby handing Obama a ready-made chance to tilt the civil-military balance back in his own favor. The general-turned-diplomat offered the novice commander in chief cover to push back against the demands pressed by Petraeus and McChrystal. Yet pushing back was certain to produce a politically costly confrontation, with the president facing off against the nation’s most influential military officer aligned with the highly respected general that Obama himself had only recently placed in charge of the Afghanistan War.
Rather than risking that confrontation, Obama grudgingly acceded to the generals’ wishes. Or more accurately, he acceded with caveats attached. In a speech to cadets at West Point on December 1, 2009, the president unveiled his own version of a surge. Thirty thousand additional U.S. troops—ten thousand fewer than McChrystal wanted—would be heading to Afghanistan. Yet theirs was not going to be an open-ended enterprise. “After 18 months,” Obama emphasized, “our troops will begin to come home.” The aim of the undertaking was “to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.”
The speech required decoding. “Building capacity” meant nation-building, which implied counterinsurgency, although Obama steered clear of that baggage-laden term. As for “responsible transition,” that had supplanted victory as the ultimate goal. Obama’s presentation fell well short of being a full-throated battle cry. Still, McChrystal had gotten most of what he wanted. With technique having now fully supplanted strategy, COIN was going to get a second try.
As a sort of implicit hat tip to his predecessor, Obama was attempting to do in Afghanistan what Bush had ostensibly done in Iraq. The opportunity costs of choosing this path loomed large. By allowing Afghanistan to consume so much of his early attention and above all by handing the war’s conduct to McChrystal, Obama effectively foreclosed any prospect of reevaluating the larger predicament confronting the United States as its War for the Greater Middle East prepared to enter its fourth decade. Any presidential predilection favoring fundamental change—an explicit promise of the Obama election—gave way to the demands of continuity. Inertia won out.
To graph changing U.S. troop strengths in Iraq and Afghanistan was to provide a visual representation of this reality. Between May and June of 2010, the lines crisscrossed. Yes, the numbers in Iraq were shrinking. Yes, too, the number of troops in Afghanistan was headed upward, soon to reach a peak just above a hundred thousand—a force three times larger than when Obama had become president.
The administration advanced the proposition that this represented progress.
Yet however muted Obama’s enthusiasm, McChrystal wasted no time in implementing the president’s decision. Having too few forces to implement COIN on a countrywide basis, he chose to concentrate on the two southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. More specifically, he identified Marja, a city of approximately eighty thousand, as the right place to validate COIN’s relevance to Afghanistan. Located in a region where poppy cultivation flourished, Marja sat well beyond the zone of Afghan government control. As a Taliban stronghold, it appeared ripe for liberation. Here was an Afghan equivalent of Tal Afar before H. R. McMaster had arrived to put things right.
Now, apart from adhering to a common religious tradition, Afghanistan and Iraq are about as much alike as opium and oil. Even so, McChrystal was expecting that just as “clear, hold, and build” had worked its magic in the one country, so too it would surely work in the other. Seldom has the tendency of generals to fight the last war all over again been more vividly on display.
To win support in the Afghan countryside, McChrystal was determined to reduce the number of civilian casualties resulting from ISAF operations, something that President Karzai had been complaining about for years. With that in mind, McChrystal issued rules of engagement that restricted ISAF’s use of force other than in self-defense, even though that meant increased risk to U.S. and other coalition forces. Winning Afghan popular support, he insisted, should take precedence over all other considerations. “We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories—but suffering strategic defeats—by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people.”
Soldiers were to pull triggers, call in artillery, or ask for close air support only when absolutely necessary and when certain that civilians would not be harmed. The policy, which became known as “courageous restraint,” was the sort of high-minded concept that looks good on a PowerPoint slide at higher headquarters but might not translate well with a nervous nineteen-year-old lance corporal on foot patrol.
At any rate, the spirit of courageous restraint informed McChrystal’s expectations for how events at Marja were to unfold. Code-named Moshtarak (Dari for “together”), the operation began with a prelude of sorts, a leaflet drop instructing Marja’s residents to remove themselves from harm’s way and, in effect, inviting the Taliban to do likewise. This they did, with considerable numbers fleeing the city. The real action then kicked off overnight on February 13, 2010, with an assault by U.S. Marines, supported by British troops and preceded by U.S. Army special forces teams. After these coalition combat contingents cleared the city of any remaining insurgents, Afghan security forces were to hold it and then, with plenty of outside help, agencies of the Afghan government would swoop in to rebuild. Phase one promised to be doable, phase two challenging, phase three the really hard part. Even so, McChrystal expressed confidence. “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,” he promised.
Once successfully resurrected, Marja would offer a model for application elsewhere. “Marja is an opening salvo,” one senior Pentagon official promised. “It is a first step.” Success in Marja would create a “shift in momentum,” setting the stage for comparable successes elsewhere in Afghanistan.
The expectations of a single liberating act generating irresistible forward progress mirrored those of Iraqi Freedom back in 2003, albeit on a more modest scale.
Actual results achieved quickly punctured such hopes, however. Once more, the application of self-evidently superior American military might failed to yield lasting political success.
With Marines bearing the brunt of the fighting, the initial stages of Moshtarak’s clearing phase began reasonably well. During the operation’s first week, eight American and three British soldiers were lost to enemy action.
Yet by February 25, for the first time in years, the Afghan flag was flying over the city center. “We are in control of all the key populated areas of Marja, we’re in control of all the key infrastructure,” Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, senior Marine commander, announced. “Our focus now is on markets. Our focus now on getting the roads open and taking care of the people.”
The transition from clear to hold and even to build seemed well underway.
Again, however, appearances misled. In wartime, it is a mistake to confuse a lull in violence with a cessation of hostilities. Although armed resistance in Marja may have subsided, it had not ended. Instead, the local Taliban regrouped and adapted. In short order, a campaign of intimidation intended to dissuade the local population from cooperating with the outside intruders was taking its toll.
The IED threat, once thought eliminated, reappeared. Firefights between Marines and insurgents became commonplace. U.S. forces sustained more casualties in Marja between mid-May and mid-June than they had in the operation’s initial stages. In late May, McChrystal himself all but conceded failure. The city intended to serve as a COIN showcase, he conceded, had instead become a “bleeding ulcer.”
According to one American journalist who accompanied U.S. Marines during Operation Moshtarak, McChrystal and other COIN true believers had “overpromised and underdelivered.”
True as far as it goes, the observation does not probe deeply enough the defects inherent in counterinsurgency theory. The troops charged with implementing that theory found that in practice neat distinctions between clear, hold, and build simply did not hold up. Theory didn’t translate into reality. Clearing turned out to be partial and reversible. The Afghan forces expected to maintain order once ISAF had secured the city lacked the wherewithal—and perhaps the will—to do so. Worst of all, the promised improvements in everyday life, the essence of McChrystal’s “government in a box,” failed to materialize.
Operation Moshtarak might well have been called Operation Sand Against the Wind. The longer the Marines stayed on, the more apparent it became that theirs was an exercise in futility.
Of the several available explanations for the operation’s disappointing outcome, culture—meaning habit, tradition, identity, and religion—deserves pride of place. Here we confront what we might call COIN’s Canadian fallacy.
Although Canadians and Americans differ, both sides have learned to bridge those differences, thereby facilitating wide-ranging collaboration. Between “us” and “them” a divide of sorts persists, but over a long period of coexistence, helped by proximity, that divide has shrunk in importance. It’s not worth fighting about.
Proponents of counterinsurgency—and of America’s War for the Greater Middle East more generally—assume that the Islamic world is filled with Canadians: people who subscribe to or at least lean toward a worldview akin to our own. Alas, Afghans are most emphatically
Canadians. The divide separating “us” from “them” is a chasm. Spanning that chasm, even if theoretically feasible, will necessarily require enormous exertions over an exceedingly long period of time. The idea that a couple of battalions of U.S. Marines demonstrating “courageous restraint” could jump-start the process as was absurd as expecting Marines back in 1983 to bring peace to Lebanon.
McChrystal’s attempt to pacify just one small Afghan city by applying the latest counterinsurgency principles came nowhere close to succeeding. Months after ISAF’s offensive had begun, Marja remained the site of “a full-blown guerrilla insurgency that rages daily across a bomb-riddled landscape of agricultural fields and irrigation trenches.”
Yet even if not providing a model for application elsewhere in Afghanistan, Operation Moshtarak did offer an education of sorts for the American general who had conceived it. McChrystal seemed to grasp the underlying explanation for that failure: The problem was ignorance, laced with hubris. Those charged with presiding over the war in Afghanistan, he subsequently remarked, entertained a “superficial understanding of the situation” and “a frighteningly simplistic view of recent history,” an indictment in which McChrystal included himself. Present in Afghanistan for nearly a decade, U.S. forces still struggled to understand the place and its people. “We didn’t know enough and we still don’t know enough,” he lamented.