Last Exit Before Quagmire

by , September 23, 2009

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 Taliban. 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 Gen. McChrystal’s report is, "Back to the drawing board, fellas."

How might Fourth Generation theory help us rewrite 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 Gen. 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 Gen. 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 Gen. 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 Gen. 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.

Read more by William S. Lind