The McChrystal Method
Our Afghan commander wants more troops for a strategy that cannot win
By Jeff Huber
“You can’t kid yourself that you know what’s going on. … You just can’t make an assessment.”
–Gen. Stanley McChrystal, “60 Minutes“
Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s “60 Minutes” infomercial erases any doubt that the Pentagon and its supporters are waging unrestricted information warfare against our commander in chief. The war lobby would have us believe that unless President Obama accedes immediately to McChrystal’s request for additional “resources” in Afghanistan, all will be lost and the Islamofascist hordes will breach our shores and devour us.
What’s missing from the discussion is that the arguments in favor of supporting McChrystal’s proposed strategy, and McChrystal’s strategy itself, are insane.
Hawks in Congress like Mitch McConnell, John McCain, and John Boehner say that failure to act quickly to obey McChrystal’s demands will put our troops in danger. It never occurs to these yahooligans that the top way to put troops in danger is to commit them to combat without thinking about why you’re doing it.
In his “60 Minutes” interview, McChrystal warns that overwhelming firepower from the United States is not the way to win the Afghan War. He already has an overwhelming firepower advantage in Afghanistan, and the rumor mill has it that he’s about to ask for more, to the tune of as many as 45,000 additional U.S. troops.
President Obama said that he would only approve another escalation if he has “absolute clarity about what the strategy is going to be.” The strategy described in McChrystal’s report on Afghanistan is opaque at best.
McChrystal says, “We must conduct classic counterinsurgency operations” and states that success depends not on “seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces” but on “gaining the support of the people.” That’s laughable considering that classic clear-hold-build counterinsurgency operations involve seizing terrain and destroying the insurgent forces that occupy it.
Another aspect of classic counterinsurgency operations, as defined in the celebrated 2006 counterinsurgency manual that Gen. David Petraeus supposedly wrote (he “wrote” his signature on the endorsement letter) is to “continuously secure the people and separate them from the insurgents.” The notion that we can separate the people in Afghanistan from the insurgents is mad. Good luck finding an Afghan “civilian” who doesn’t have a blood tie to an insurgent.
Supporting the “government political apparatus to replace the insurgent apparatus,” as the manual dictates, is a recipe for failure. Hamad Karzai’s regime is more corrupt and incompetent than the Taliban apparatus we replaced when we initially went into Afghanistan. McChrystal admits that Afghans have “little reason to support their government.”
The primary justification for the next round of escalation is that we need to defeat al-Qaeda, which McChrystal admits he sees no major sign of in Afghanistan. So, his argument goes, in order to disrupt al-Qaeda’s terror network, we need to occupy a country al-Qaeda is not in. The concern is that if the Taliban again becomes the official government, it will invite al-Qaeda back into Afghanistan. Why would we care if al-Qaeda is in Afghanistan or Pakistan? Their iPhones work equally well in either place, as they do from any spot on the planet, and we cannot occupy every spot on the planet.
The al-Qaeda juggernaut we have been programmed to quake in fear of doesn’t amount to much. As former CIA officer Philip Giraldi recently noted, “An assessment by France’s highly regarded Paris Institute of Political Studies [suggests that] Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda has likely been reduced to a core group of eight to ten terrorists who are on the run more often than not.”
The counterinsurgency manual calls for 20 to 25 counterinsurgent troops per 1,000 residents. For the sake of hunting down fewer than a dozen evildoers who are somewhere other than Afghanistan, McChrystal and the rest of the war mafia advocate escalating the force level in Afghanistan to a half-million troops. McChrystal wants to train Afghans to fill 400,000 of those billets. He’d be better off training 400,000 German Shepherds. Our attempts at training Iraq’s security forces were a complete bust, and Iraq was once a real country with a real army, something we can’t say of Afghanistan.
Petraeus, who along with Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen has endorsed McChrystal’s recommendations, says, “I don’t think anyone can guarantee that it will work out even if we apply a lot more resources. But it won’t work out if we don’t.” Hawkish Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute, who tends to “believe in the strategy,” admits that “even if we do everything right, we could still fail.” Endorsements don’t get more weasel-worded than that.
In theory, the Afghanistan conflict is about combating global terrorism, but counterinsurgency “expert” David Kilcullen, an adviser to both Petraeus and McChrystal, says the Obama counterterrorism mandate isn’t “at the top of my list.” One of Kilcullen’s main arguments for continuing the Afghanistan commitment is that it will preserve the future of the NATO alliance, which, more than a decade after the end of the Cold War, serves no viable function.
John Nagl, another counterinsurgency expert, gushes like a schoolgirl over the potential of the Afghanistan quagmire. “This is counterinsurgency[‘s] best practice,” he says. “This is wonderful.” Jolly old fun: let’s get good at this so we can do it again and again and again. Defense contracts for all my friends! (As of June, the Afghan war cost us $6.7 billion per month.)
The pro-war tank thinkery is reviving the Islamo-fabulist wheeze that says if we bring our troops home, the “evil ones” will follow us here. The evil ones can’t get here from there. It’s too far to jump or swim, and nobody has the kind of navy or air force it takes to bring a force sufficient to invade and occupy America from across the oceans.
A study conducted in 2008 by the globally respected security analysts at Rand Corporation illustrated conclusively that military force is by far the least effective method of combating terrorism. Policing and political solutions account for 83 percent of success against terrorist groups. Rand’s finest concluded that the best approach to combating terrorism should involve “a light U.S. military footprint or none at all.” McChrystal and his advocates insist on the opposite.
Sun Tzu warned, “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” The looniest aspect of the Afghanistan debate is McChrystal’s stunning admission that it’s impossible to tell what’s actually going on. We understand more about the Klingons and the Vulcans than we’ll ever know about the Afghans. We don’t know what we’re doing in Afghanistan, and the war fanatics tell us we need to do more of it.
The bromide that winners never quit and quitters never win is bunker-mentality bunk. Winners know when to quit and losers don’t; proof of this occurs everyday in Las Vegas. For Obama to go along with McChrystal’s proposal would be an all-in bet against odds longer than the distance between Washington D.C. and Kabul, an enormous risk for no appreciable pay off.
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword. Jeff’s novel Bathtub Admirals(Kunati Books), a lampoon on America’s rise to global dominance, is on sale now.