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Last Exit Before Quagmire

The Washington Post yesterday made available an unclassified version of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s long-awaited report on the war in Afghanistan. Politically, the report is bold, in that it acknowledges the enemy has the initiative and we have been fighting the war – for eight years – in counterproductive ways. But intellectually, both as analysis and as prescription, it is five pounds of substance in a 50 pound bag.

The report’s message can be summarized in one sentence: we need to start doing classic counterinsurgency, and to do so, we need more “resources,” i.e. troops. In a narrow, technical sense, that statement is valid. Classic counterinsurgency doctrine says we need hundreds of thousands more troops in Afghanistan.

Past that syllogism, the report’s validity becomes questionable. Defects begin with the study’s failure to address Fourth Generation war’s first and most important question: Is there a state in Afghanistan? At times, the report appears to assume a state; elsewhere, it speaks of the Afghan state’s weaknesses. It never addresses the main fact, namely that at present there is no state, and under the current Afghan government there is no prospect of creating one.

The failure to acknowledge the absence of a state leads the rest of the report through the looking glass. For example, it puts great emphasis on expanding the Afghan National Security Forces (army and police). But absent a state, there are no state armed forces. The ANSF are militiamen who take a salary paid, through intermediaries, by foreign governments. How many Pashtun do you find in the ANSF?

Similarly, the report laments that Afghanistan’s prisons have become recruiting centers for the Tailban. It calls for getting the U.S. out of the prison business and turning it all over to the Afghan government. But who will then run those “state” prisons? The Taliban, of course, just as they do now.

In a curious passage, the report says, on page 2-20, “The greater resources (ISAF requires) will not be sufficient to achieve success, but will enable implementation of the new strategy. Conversely, inadequate resources will likely result in failure. However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced.”

Here we encounter the report’s most dangerous failing. It confuses the strategic and the operational levels of war. In fact, the report does not offer a new strategy, but a new operational-level plan. How the war is fought, i.e. by following classic counter-insurgency doctrine, is operational, not strategic.

America must find a new strategy, since the current strategy depends on an Afghan state that does not exist. But the report offers no new strategy. The passage on page 2-20 thus ends up saying, “If you don’t give us more troops, we will fail. But you shouldn’t give us more troops unless we adopt a new strategy, which we don’t have. And even if you do give us the troops we want for the new strategy we haven’t got, they will not be enough to achieve success.” This reveals utter intellectual confusion.


The proper response of the White House, the Pentagon, and Congress to General McChrystal’s report is, “Back to the drawing board, fellas.”

How might Fourth Generation theory help us re-write the report? At the operational level, most of what it recommends under the rubric of counterinsurgency is sound. Drawing on the report’s concept of “proper resourcing” that allows for “appropriate and acceptable risk,” we would concentrate our counterinsurgency efforts in a few provinces, such as Helmand, to show the Taliban we can fight it to a stalemate. We would endeavor to do so while gradually drawing troop levels down, not sending in more troops. The goal of these actions on the operational level would be to buy time both in Afghanistan and on the home front.

We would use that time to implement a genuine new strategy. It would proceed from these facts:

• There is no state in Afghanistan, and none can be created by or for the current Afghan government.
• Our strategic goal, as General McChrystal’s report states in its first paragraph, is to prevent al Qaeda’s return to Afghanistan.
• There is currently no evidence of al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan. One of the best open sources of intelligence, Nightwatch, recently stated this directly, and General McChrystal’s report hints at it.

Our strategic goal would be to see the creation of a state in Afghanistan that can and will prevent al Qaeda’s return. Who can do that? The Taliban. We would use the time bought by counterinsurgency operations to negotiate with the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, the Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin and other Afghan leaders, including some in the current Afghan government, toward a power-sharing arrangement. A government that includes the Taliban can create a state.

The risk is the Taliban’s willingness to keep al Qaeda out. Why should Mullah Omar agree to that? Because al-Qaeda no longer needs Afghan bases. It has far more useful ones in Pakistan. That is why it is not in Afghanistan now.

If President Obama and Congress accept General McChrystal’s report and adopt a new operational plan in support of the current strategy, building an Afghan state around the regime now in Kabul, they will guarantee an American defeat. Sending more American troops to Afghanistan will only magnify the defeat. Ironically, what Washington needs to do is follow General McChrystal’s own recommendation and refuse more resources without a new strategy.

Let’s hope the politicians realize this is their last exit before a bottomless quagmire.

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#1 Comment By Barney Rebble On September 23, 2009 @ 4:30 am

Thank goodness things have lightened up. In our last little satire, Mr Lind postulated that individual American soldiers and pilots enjoyed burning women and children alive. But his buddies at antiwar.com may view that differently than I do.


Here again, Mr Lind’s satire is subtle, as he postulates an American Lib Presidency with a shred of decency, integrity, and ability to keep promises. Without which, we could of course walk away from our promises at any time, in which case there would be NO SUCH THING as some imaginary LAST CHANCE.

When the Top Brass begin to leave, look for Obama to weigh whether the Afghanistan situation is necessary to detract from his domestic agenda, and then to pack his army into his carpet bag, and retreat back to the safety of the US. Here, he will keep us safe by making all comers citizens, and pointing out that we aren’t any threat to foreigners, as our manufacturing infrastructure crumbles.

And some conservative pundit counterpart to the libs at antiwar.com will begin postulating the eventual vaporization of Dallas-Ft. Worth.

#2 Comment By Luis de Agustin On September 23, 2009 @ 9:08 am

Would it be a breach of etiquette to ask the good general if nine years into the Afghanistan action, having apparently made little headway beyond meretricious effort at great cost in US troops and Afghani lives, if the mercurial mission is not one of continuing to dig a deeper hole, with the only change an angle of trajectory or adjustment in digging tools.

Hopefully, raising such a question doesn’t label one an unpatriotic defeatist or a supporter or “the enemy,” whoever they may be at the moment (US missions this century seem to only increase the numbers of those who “hate us for our liberty and democracy”).

Public support for the war is falling, and it’s only out of a sense of patriotic support for the troops that it’s as high as it is, and DC knows this.

How low does support have to fall for Mr. Obama to order all US troops out of Afghanistan is the incomplete question. Among the public it could be down to -1 and the non-mission mission will continue funded. The proper question is how low does support for the war have to fall among the MIC who benefit from the funding and promotion opportunities have to fall before…? Unfortunately, folks do not vote against their best interests, and so one shudders to think how long this fraud for the betterment of the war machine will continue.

The cost in more grunt lives clutches the heart. Mr. Obama, tear down this sham!

Luis de Agustin

#3 Comment By JihadLizard On September 24, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

Mr. Lind is absolutely correct, Afghanistan is not a state. Having served in Afghanistan, the only people on the planet that respect the 1889 Durand Line, serving as the current border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, are the American and NATO forces. It cuts right through the Pashtun tribal areas with half in Afghanistan and half in Pakistan. Why should we send our sons and daughters to continue to die for imaginary lines that do not reflect the demographic reality drawn for the convenience and by 19th century British imperialists?

#4 Comment By stephen miller On September 25, 2009 @ 9:54 am

It is the nature of Afghanistan that the more foreign troops you send in there, the more a virulent resistance develops. So classic counterinsurgency doctrine, positing overwhelming troop presence, is in this case a disastrous error. The best way to handle the problem would be if we could prevent the return of AlQueda without any American troops visible on the ground there. We still don’t seem to get the point that you can’t just go invading countries willy nilly to accomplish political goals, and especially not with troops that are alien to, and do not understand local culture. This is exactly how you create enemies. And we are unnecessarily creating enemies by the thousands there. This is exactly how you sustain a pointless war for ever. Is that what we really want? That may be what the military industry wants, but it is definitely not in our nation’s interest.