For a better written, but otherwise almost identical analysis to my own, though I suffer no illusion that George Will reads this blog, see the next day's George Will, "Time to Get Out of Afghanistan," Washington Post, September 1, 2009.
(brought to you by FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com*)
Although neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post seems to have anything online about The McChrystal Report as I write this, the BBC -- which remains in my judgment the world's single best news organization -- does. General Stanley McChrystal, our top military commander for Afghanistan, has been charged with reponsibility for preparing a report for his superiors -- up to and including the Commander in Chief, President Barack Obama -- regarding how things are going over there.
It reminds me of a similar (though much less public, significant and influential) assignment I was once given by another president, President Lyndon Johnson, regarding our efforts in Viet Nam and southeast Asia generally. My conclusion? "Mr. President, you can't play basketball on a football field."
What did I mean by that?
I recalled Iowa City during World War II, and the "Navy Pre-Flight Training School" in our neighborhood, under the command of Captain Hanrahan. I and my friends were only in grade school at the time, but he was always willing to give a little time to the operation's mascots. This included pointing out to us, on the map of Europe on the wall of his office (in the building we now call "South Quad"), how the "front line" was moving across Europe.
For in Viet Nam -- as in Iraq, and now Afghanistan -- there was no "front line." Territory secured one day and lost the next might or might not be repeatedly captured and lost.
Nor was that the only reason why it was very difficult to conduct a "war."
Whenever an economically advanced and militarily powerful nation tries to conduct a "war" in a less powerful country, regardless of how benevolent the military power's motives may be, a substantial portion of the local population will look upon the operation as only the latest in a centuries-long history of invaders and occupiers.
Just as many Americans would organize to fight off invaders and occupiers -- as we did, after all, in the Revolutionary War that marked our nation's beginning -- so do those in the countries we attempt to control with our military.
In science, the mere fact that a scientific experiment is being conducted may impact on what it is that is being observed. Similarly, however counter intuitive it may seem, it the more troops we put in a country, and the longer they are there, the greater is the local hostility to their presence and the more locals who are motivated to participate in the resistance. The resulting chaos may even ignite and exacerbate, rather than reduce, internal strife and fighting among local groups formerly existing under some form of truce.
More often than not, it's very difficult to know who "the enemy" is in such situations. We are identifiable by our uniforms. They are not. They are embedded in the civilian population. They may be part-time fighters with other jobs to which they devote more or less time on any given day. Some may actually be on our payroll.
One of the consequences is that in order to kill them we end up with enormous numbers of dead civilians -- sometimes school children, or those attending weddings or funerals -- whom we euphemistically refer to with the sanitized expression, "collateral damage." Needless to say, such deaths are extremely counterproductive in our effort to "win hearts and minds."
The whole operation is significantly handicapped, moreover, by the fact that those we send overseas, and those who send them there, often through no fault of their own, know very little about the local country and people. Often as not, we cannot speak their language. We don't know their history and religion, their literature and culture, their legitimate and criminal economic activities, their tribal and family ties, their social power structure (we certainly don't even know the names of, let alone have longstanding personal relationships with, local leaders), the internal territorial or religious groups' hostilities, what they do and do not consider appropriate behavior. Even the territory -- deserts and mountainous areas -- may be alien to our troops.
Finally, all of this takes place in an area that is significantly unlike anything we are used to as a "country" based on our American experience. Afghanistan, for example, with its poverty and lack of an educated population, nonexistent to inadequate systems of roads and communication networks, a poppy-based drug economy, with even the capital, Kabul, under attack, and the rest of the country essentially divided into areas under the dictatorial, all-powerful control of individual war lords, is not a "nation" in the sense we use that word.
See generally, Nicholas Johnson, "Ten Questions for Bush Before War," Daily Iowan, February 4, 2008, p. A6.
As President Obama is discovering, even the president of the United States is far from a powerful single leader of America insofar as the very independent members of the Senate and House are concerned, or the lobbyists and major campaign contributors who fund them. In Afghanistan it's much worse. "Our man in Kabul," Afghan President Hamid Karzai, has to make deals with the drug lords in Afghanistan just as Obama needs to make deals with the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. Karzai can't dictate to the regional war lords of his country any more than Obama can dictate to the senators and governors here.
Indeed, there's a growing disenchantment in Washington with Karzai. And it's not helped with the mounting evidence of outrageous and significant fraud in the recent election for which the ballots are still being counted, and his ties to the drug business. But without Karzai, whom do we turn to as a powerful Afghanistan "leader"?
This is the environment into which the U.S., and the coalition, have sent some 100,000 troops -- and may be sending more.
But with what "mission"? Why are we there? How are our national interests involved -- to such a degree that rational prioritization dictates continuing to spend in excess of a trillion dollars there (Afghanistan and Iraq) rather than here? How would we know if we'd ever been "successful"? What is our ultimate exit strategy? Why will Afghanistan be better off -- by any standard -- years after we've left than it was before we arrived? Why will we be any safer from "terrorism" -- since there are plenty of ungoverned "nations" where the Al Qaeda can hole up and train warriors even if we could run them and the Taliban out of Afghanistan, which it appears we cannot?
Moreover, even if we had a metric for measuring our "success," which we don't, why are we focused on Afghanistan? It's kind of like our response to 9/11 initially -- Saudi Arabia was the source of those who flew the planes into the Twin Towers, and the money that funded their operation. So what did we do? We bombed Afghanistan and then invaded Iraq, a country whose leaders and people apparently had virtually nothing to do with the operation and were actually hostile to Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda and the Taliban seem to be primarily located in and working out of Pakistan. So where are we engaging them? In Afghanistan.
So it is that we cannot be surprised with what early leaks indicate may be coming to us from General McChrystal, in these excerpts from the BBC's report:
A report by the top US general in Afghanistan is expected to admit the current strategy is not working, the BBC understands."US Afghan Strategy 'Not Working,'" BBC News, 31 August 2009 09:13 UK.
General Stanley McChrystal will liken the US military to a bull charging at a matador [the Taliban] - slightly weakened with each "cut" it receives.
His review is also expected to say that protecting the Afghan people against the Taliban must be the top priority. . . .
Crisis of confidence
BBC North America editor Mark Mardell says General McChrystal's bullfighting metaphor is striking because it is not the usual way that US commanders talk about the country's armed forces.
The general's blunt assessment will also say that the Afghan people are undergoing a crisis of confidence because the war against the Taliban has not made their lives better, our correspondent says.
General McChrystal says the aim should be for Afghan forces to take the lead but their army will not be ready to do that for three years and it will take much longer for the police.
And he will warn that villages have to be taken from the Taliban and held, not merely taken.
General McChrystal also wants more engagement with the Taliban fighters and he believes that 60% of the problem would go away if they could be found jobs.
It looks like the Report will end up being further support for my only half joking proposal that "what we need is more military control of the civilians" (a take off on the basic American constitutional principle of "civilian control of the military").
It is, after all, the elected officials and talk show hosts who suggest that we should "Nuke 'em!" or "Let's go kick some butt!" or whose contribution to military strategy such vacuous lines as "These colors don't run!"
The top thinkers in the military, many of whom do make their way to the top of their service, or the Joint Chiefs' staff, are well educated, bright, analytical and rational.
When left to their own independent judgment and opinions they are the ones likely to ask questions like those I outlined above. What, exactly, is it you are trying to do in this country? How are our national interests involved? In what ways do you think a military presence could be helpful in reaching that goal (as distinguished from, e.g., Peace Corps presence and building infrastructure; cultural exchanges; or bringing their best students to our universities)? How would you describe that military mission? With what metrics would you measure our military's progress? How many troops will it take to accomplish that mission? How long will it take? What is your basis for thinking the American people, and their elected representatives, will support the cost in human life and taxes over that time? (Support for the Afghan war has now dropped below 50%.) What support is there in the international community for this action? Does that support include financial support and troops? Once in, how do we get out; that is, what is our "exit strategy"? On the assumption the military mission produces the outcome desired, why is it reasonable to assume that progress will be sustained after we leave?
Note what General McChrystal is said to be talking about. Our military efforts "have not made their lives better;" security must be provided by locals "but their army will not be ready to do that for three years and it will take much longer for the police;" and a jobs program would be more effective than continuing to shoot Afghans ("60% of the problem would go away if they could be found jobs"). [See, e.g., Pamela Constable, "Many Women Stayed Away From the Polls In Afghanistan; Fear, Tradition, Apathy Reversed Hopeful Trend," Washington Post, August 31, 2009 ("Five years ago, with the country at peace, traditional taboos easing and Western donors pushing for women to participate in democracy, millions of Afghan women eagerly registered and then voted for a presidential candidate. . . . But on Aug. 20 [, 2009], when Afghans again went to the polls to choose a president, . . . a combination of fear, tradition, apathy and poor planning conspired to deprive many Afghan women of rights they had only recently begun to exercise").]
To the extent he's talking about conventional military issues at all, he comments (as I do above) that "villages have to be taken from the Taliban and held, not merely taken." And that function would require, of course, multiples of the numbers of troops anyone has so far proposed. (It's reminiscent of Jerry Seinfeld's routine at the car rental counter: "You know how to take the reservation, you just don't know how to hold the reservation." See video, embedded in Nicholas Johnson, "Gannett Shoots Straight -- Into Foot," May 3, 2009.)
It remains to be seen what's contained in the full report, if it is to be made public. But from what's been leaked so far it looks like it is going to provide the kind of candor that is needed and far more likely to come from the best and the brightest among the military in Afghanistan than from the civilians in Washington.
* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson