McChrystal Drama Is Sideshow

The Daily Telegraph in the UK talked to a senior congressional figure late Tuesday or very early Wednesday ET, who said that Gen. Stanley McChrystal had submitted his resignation in advance of Wednesday’s meeting at the White House between him and President Barack Obama. The step was prompted by a revealing profile in Rolling Stone magazine, now available on the web, in which McChrystal and members of his circle displayed open contempt for other Obama administration officials, including the vice president.


The Capitol Hill source also said that possible successors to McChrystal were already being discussed along with ways to get a quick Senate confirmation, though a final decision had not been made. Among names being considered are Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who has been heading up the NATO effort to train Afghanistan troops, and Gen. James Mattis, the retiring head of the US Joint Forces Command. (Spencer Ackerman asked Mattis about the rumors and his office replied that he serves at the pleasure of the president, which I take it to mean he is interested.)


Adding to the sense of McChrystal’s career possibly crashing and burning is the report from Matthew Green of the Financial Times in Marjah [scroll down] that US special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Ambassador in Kabul Karl Eikenberry visited Marjah on Monday and met with local elders to the sound of small arms fire in the background. (H/t to Michael Pollack for the link and his comments). Then as Holbrooke and Eikenberry were leaving the meeting site, a bomb went off, which apparently had been intended for them on the part of three suicide bombers but detonated prematurely at a local shop. The purpose of the visit was for Holbrooke to assess how well McChrystal’s counter-insurgency doctrine was going in Marjah. The local elders said that the Marines had improved security in some areas but not others. One said he had had to travel to the meeting secretly for fear of Taliban reprisals.


When the US special envoy and ambassador can’t visit a place in a country without hearing small arms fire or risking being a bombing target, I’d say security is not good there.


On Monday and Tuesday, 14 NATO troops were killed, ten of them on Monday alone. Two of those killed Tuesday were American troops. So far in June, 69 NATO troops have been killed, 43 of them American.


The French have taken killed and wounded in June, and have lost over 40 troops in the Afghanistan War since 2001. One of the reasons McChrystal should go is that the Rolling Stone article shows him being distinctly ungracious to the French, whom he is attempting to convince to remain in force in Afghanistan against their better instincts. One of his circle made a comment about his going to dinner with a French minister in Paris, saying it was effing “gay.” Tell that to the French families who lost loved ones or whose sons suffered injuries fighting a war in support of the United States (the French and other NATO powers are in Afghanistan because they invoked article 5 of the NATO treaty, “an attack on one is an attack on all,” after September 11).


Obama cannot expect NATO allies to go on making these sacrifices in a distant, obscure country without obvious strategic importance for Europe and the United States. A Dutch government has already fallen over the issue, and the Canadians have announced an intention to depart.


Obama needs to define an attainable goal in Afghanistan and then execute it swiftly. As it is, when he is pressed about what in the world we are doing there, he retreats into Bushisms: “So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That’s the goal that must be achieved.”


Well that isn’t a good enough reason to be in Afghanistan. There is no al-Qaeda to speak of in Afghanistan. And although insurgents and Taliban probably control about 20 percent of the country, they have not let al-Qaeda set up shop in their territory. If they don’t now, when they obviously need all the help they can get, why would they in the future? One major guerrilla leader, Gulbadin Hikmatyar, went from expressing willingness to fight under the banner of al-Qaeda to roundly condemning the radical Arab group for having gotten the Taliban overthrown.


As for Pakistan, the US presence in Afghanistan is not necessary to partnering with Islamabad in rooting out al-Qaeda Arabs in the Pashtun tribal belt.


In other speeches, Obama has spoken about “defeating” the Taliban. But the Taliban are by now a long-standing social formation among the Pashtun ethnic group, and are a little unlikely to be wiped out by mere military means, especially the means available to a foreign military.


A congressional investigation has even thrown up good evidence that the US itself is indirectly funding the Taliban, insofar as the USG is paying warlords to provide convoy security on roads and they are using the money to bribe Taliban not to attack on their watch.


In short, we have no idea why US troops are being sent to Afghanistan at such an accelerating rate. It isn’t to fight al-Qaeda. And if it is mainly a matter of fighting the Taliban, why should we do that? They are not going to go away, and their brand of Muslim fundamentalism is by now woven deeply into the fabric of rural Pashtun life, such that for foreign Christian troops to argue the Pashtuns out of it at the point of a gun is a fool’s errand.


In fact, the Afghan parliament insisted that some 26 accused Taliban being held in Afghan prisons without sufficient evidence of wrong-doing be released instead.


Karzai is attempting to convince the United Nations to remove from the terrorism watch list many Taliban or insurgent figures, including Mulla Omar, as well as Gulbadin Hikmatyar.


In short, Karzai appears to be attempting to strike a deal with the very Taliban and insurgents that Obama says he is pledged to uproot and destroy.


How can that make sense?


No wonder McChrystal was so frustrated that he went around his line of command to the press. The real reason for this contretemps is that Obama does not have a realistic, sharply defined set of goals in Afghanistan, and he has not been good about cracking the whip and getting everyone in his administration on the same page on AfPak.

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