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U.S.: The Afghanistan Strategy After McChrystal

June 24, 2010

While the U.S. was celebrating its World Cup victory over Algeria, another struggle was playing out in Washington that also grabbed the world's attention. In that instance, the loser was Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was forced by the president to resign his command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Since STRATFOR is more of an expert on geopolitics than the World Cup, I'm including an article from them on the current Gen. McChrystal shake-up. It's an example of the kind of behind-the-scenes intelligence reporting that makes them famous. Give it a read and visit their site to learn more and sign up to receive their free weekly reports.

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box

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U.S.: The Afghanistan Strategy After McChrystal

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DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Khost province

Summary

The commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, Gen. Stanley McChrystal has resigned his command. His resignation is a direct result of his controversial remarks in a Rolling Stone interview broken late June 21, and not a reflection or indictment of the campaign he has led in Afghanistan. But that campaign and the strategy behind it are having significant issues of their own.

Analysis

U.S. President Barack Obama on June 23 accepted the resignation of command from U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, following a controversial interview with Rolling Stone Magazine. McChrystal's resignation is a direct result of this interview and is not itself an indictment of the status of the war he commanded or the strategy behind it. But ultimately, the U.S. strategy is showing some potentially serious issues of its own.

The U.S.-led campaign was never expected to be an easy fight, and Helmand and Kandahar provinces are the Taliban's stronghold, so progress there is perhaps the most difficult in the entire country. But the heart of the strategy ultimately comes down to "Vietnamization." Though raw growth numbers officially remain on track for both the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, according to testimony which U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michelle Flournoy gave before the U.S. Congress last week, there are serious questions about the quality and effectiveness of those forces and their ability to begin taking on increasing responsibility in the country.

Meanwhile, a U.S. program to farm out more than 70 percent of logistics to Afghan trucking companies appears to be funding both warlord militias independent of the Afghan security forces and the Taliban itself. As STRATFOR has discussed, this may be a valuable expedient allowing U.S. combat forces to be massed for other purposes, but it also risks undermining the very attempts at establishing good governance and civil authority that are central to the ultimate success of the U.S. exit strategy — not to mention running counter to the effort to starve the Taliban of at least some of its resources and bases of support.

Intelligence is at the heart of the American challenge in Afghanistan, a fact that was clear from the beginning of the strategy. Special operations forces surged into the country (now roughly triple their number a year ago) and are reportedly having trouble identifying and tracking down the Taliban. Similarly, slower-than-expected progress in Marjah and the consequent delay of the Kandahar offensive have raised serious questions about whether the intelligence assumptions — particularly about the local populace — underlying the main effort of the American campaign were accurate. Security is proving elusive and the population does not appear to be as interested or as willing to break with the Taliban and join the side of the Afghan government as had been anticipated.

So while there have absolutely been tactical gains against the Taliban, and in some areas local commanders are feeling the pinch, the Taliban perceive themselves as winning the war and are very aware of the tight U.S. timetable. Though the Taliban is a diffuse and multifaceted phenomenon, it also appears to be maintaining a significant degree of internal discipline in terms of preventing the hiving off of "reconcilable" elements, as the Americans had originally hoped. Senior Pentagon officials including Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have admitted as much: It is simply too soon for meaningful negotiation with the Taliban. There has been some recent movement, but nothing decisive or irreversible — and certainly nothing that yet shows strong promise.

And with the frustrations and elusive progress in the Afghan south, it is increasingly clear that the political settlement that has always been a part of the long-term strategy is becoming an increasingly central component of the exit strategy. This is the U.S. State Department's main focus, and there appears to be considerable U.S. support behind Afghan President Hamid Karzai's reconciliation efforts. The Taliban appear to be holding together, so negotiation with the Taliban as an entity (rather than hiving it apart) may be necessary. And given the Taliban's position, this could come at a higher price than once anticipated — and then only if the Taliban can be compelled to enter into meaningful negotiations on some sort of co-dominion over Afghanistan.

The U.S. Army and Marine Corps certainly have no shortage of competent generals to replace McChrystal. And the surge of forces to Afghanistan is not likely to be reversed — U.S. and ISAF forces are spread quite thin, despite the already-significant increase in troop levels. But whoever replaces McChrystal will continue to struggle with a war that remains deeply intractable with limited prospects for success.

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