The miasma’s more worrying than McChrystal

“IF Americans … started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular,” Michael Hastings quotes a senior adviser to General Stanley McChrystal in Rolling Stone magazine with reference to the conflict in Afghanistan.


The article in question has acquired considerable notoriety on account of its consequences, namely McChrystal’s dismissal as the top military honcho in Afghanistan, after he and a number of his aides were quoted as mocking some of the leading officials in the Obama administration. The drama, perhaps inevitably, overshadowed some of Hastings’ arguably more significant observations, including a degree of resentment among US troops over McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy, or COIN.


The acronym carries an unfortunate echo of COINTELPRO, the counter-intelligence programme deployed by the FBI against domestic political dissidents in the US from the mid-1950s. Be that as it may, COIN is ostensibly aimed at reducing civilian casualties among Afghans, and calls for “courageous restraint” on the part of the occupying forces. The idea is not to shoot at anything that moves, to give unarmed Afghans the benefit of the doubt, to avoid patrolling areas where the likelihood of lethal encounters is greater, and so on.


American soldiers feel this policy has directly contributed to an increase in their level of casualties. Last month was indeed the deadliest so far for the US and its allies in Afghanistan. But it seems nobody carefully counts the dead on the other side. “Even in his new role as America’s leading evangelist for counter-insurgency,” Hastings writes, “McChrystal retains the deep-seated instincts of a terrorist hunter. To put pressure on the Taliban, he has upped the number of Special Forces units in Afghanistan from four to 19. ‘You better be out there hitting four or five targets tonight,’ McChrystal will tell a Navy Seal he sees in the hallway at headquarters. Then he’ll add, ‘I’m going to have to scold you in the morning for it, though.’ ”


So much for courageous restraint. But then, as Hastings point out, before his appointment to Afghanistan, McChrystal “spent five years running the Pentagon’s most secretive black ops”. Old habits die hard, although the general did learn the etiquette of apologizing profusely to Hamid Karzai for the more egregious outrages. The Afghan president clearly enjoyed the attention; late last month, his was one of the few voices demanding that McChrystal be permitted to remain at his post.


Reports also suggest that Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is less than thrilled with McChrystal’s replacement with David Petraeus. McChrystal was a frequent visitor to Islamabad (and Petraeus is hardly a stranger to Pakistanis), but what has caused a spot of alarm in Washington is Kayani and ISI chief Ahmad Shuja Pasha’s recent flurry of visits to Kabul.


American and Pakistani sources have been quoted as claiming that a primary purpose of these trips has been to broker a power-sharing deal between Karzai and the Pakistan-based Jalaluddin Haqqani group, although both Islamabad and Kabul have denied this. Karzai’s dismissal some weeks earlier of a pair of senior aides particularly hostile to Pakistan’s influence, and last week’s reports that a few Afghan military officers would be sent for training to Pakistan have added to the perception of a changed dynamic between the neighbours.


That could be seen as a healthy sign: given that both Kabul and Islamabad are meant to be combating the Taliban (albeit not necessarily the same forces), it doesn’t help if they are at cross-purposes. However, it is also open to alternative interpretations, not least in the light of the fact that Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan’s affairs since the late 1970s has yielded painful results for both countries. Of late, the Pakistani side has been preoccupied by the idea of countering Indian influence – and it has been reported that the Haqqani network has been deployed to attack Indian interests in Afghanistan. So, it is said, has Lashkar-e-Taiba; if that’s true, did this particular terrorist group cross the border without official assistance?


It would be so much better were India and Pakistan to recognize their mutual interest in a stable and independent Afghanistan and a terrorism-free regional environment, and work cooperatively towards achieving that end.


It would be so much worse were Kabul and Islamabad to conclude some sort of a deal with some of the purveyors of militant obscurantism, which could shortly thereafter unravel and strand both nations in a Talibanist mire.


At the same time, after nearly nine years of war, there can be little room for doubt that American military strategies have been leading nowhere in particular. The latest variant, COIN, is apparently based on French and American experiences in Algeria and Vietnam respectively, which stand out, if anything, as exceptionally brutal examples of colonial duplicity and imperial overreach. “Never again” is the only lesson that can sensibly be drawn from either misadventure, not “let’s make the same mistakes and commit the same crimes all over again”.


It has been conjectured that McChrystal recognized the futility of the American war, and exposing himself and his staff to a reporter representing a decidedly left-ish magazine was effectively his personal exit strategy. His ouster has been compared with Harry Truman’s action against Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War and Abraham Lincoln’s sacking of a succession of generals during the American Civil War. But Lincoln bore personal insults with equanimity: he just wanted a general who was willing to fight the Confederacy, and eventually found one in Ulysses S. Grant. Truman just about succeeded in preventing MacArthur from provoking a third world war.


But those two presidents were also demonstrating the important principle of civilian precedence in the chain of command. Barack Obama has done the same. He has also succeeded, possibly against his wishes, in reinvigorating a debate about the American role in Afghanistan. And in effectively ruling Petraeus out as a Republican presidential candidate for 2012. So, some good may come of it after all.


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