McChrystal’s Conundrum

Is the Afghan war already lost? Well, not quite, says the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, but almost:

"Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) – while Afghan security capacity matures – risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."

That’s the gist of a memo [.pdf] sent to the White House by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which was leaked to Bob Woodward and published – with "unclassified " stamped all over it – in redacted form (redacted, according to Woodward, "at the request of the government"). The fact that it was leaked is receiving far more attention than the actual content, as everyone tries to decipher who leaked it and why. The conventional explanation is the simplest: it was leaked by someone who supports McChrystal’s position – more troops, more resources, more casualties – in order to back the president into a corner. Then there are those who speculate this was a "reverse leak," i.e., someone was trying to get the president mad at the general for presumably having something to do with the leak. Not to forget the "fake leak" theory, whose adherents accuse the administration itself of being the source of the leak: the assumption being they’re trying to back themselves into a corner and cut short any congressional debate.

I like the "fake leak" theory myself, although I readily admit there’s no evidence to support it – except, that is, for the character of people we’re talking about. Yet the true significance of the McChrystal memo is that, in spite of the general’s conclusion victory is "achievable," the rest of his memo refutes that contention.

The Afghan government – the government our troops are fighting and dying to protect – is described by McChrystal as riddled with corruption and "malign." This has led to a “crisis of confidence among Afghans. Further, a perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents."

But of course the Afghans are "reluctant" to welcome foreign invaders with open arms – yes, even if they are Americans. When have they ever done so?

McChrystal excoriates his own command for failing to get it:

"Afghan social, political, economic, and cultural affairs are complex and poorly understood. ISAF does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population."

Yet McChrystal himself fails to grasp the essential fact about the country he is invading and occupying, which is that Afghans – like people everywhere – hate invaders and invariably resist occupation. Just ask the Russians or the British. The reason for the insurgency isn’t because the Afghan government is any more corrupt than governments in that region of the world generally tend to be: it’s because President Karzai is an American puppet who was installed because we invaded the country and continue to occupy it. Without U.S. military support, the Karzai regime wouldn’t last but a month or two, at most – and the same is true of any regime we support, no matter who is at the head of it.

The general, of course, cannot acknowledge this, since it would sink the whole COIN doctrine he and his co-thinkers at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) are pushing. According to the COINsters, we can win – if only we can "protect Afghans," instead of concentrating on "force protection." This doctrine seeks to turn an army of occupiers into an insurgency, of sorts – that is, an occupying army that "lives with the people," kind of like Che Guevara, only with a much bigger budget.

“Preoccupied with protection of our own forces," write McChrystal, "we have operated in a manner that distances us – physically and psychologically – from the people we seek to protect. … The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves.”

First he tells us we’ll experience "mission failure" unless we rush in troops and resources over the next year – and then he says the Taliban can’t defeat us militarily. So which is it? From the rest of his memo, it certainly seems as if the Taliban is in the process of inflicting defeat on us, but then McChrystal is apparently as much a politician as he is a general – which explains a lot.

Obama has said that he will not go ahead with any troop increases until and unless we achieve "clarity" on what our strategy is going to be, and the general has laid his cards on the table: we need more troops, more resources, and – most importantly – a willingness to take many more casualties. That’s what abandoning force protection as a primary goal means: if you’re an invader and you go out and "live with the people," it’s wise to watch your back.

What’s interesting is that this goal of "protecting Afghans" raises the question: protect them from whom? With bombs raining down on wedding parties and "collateral damage" a daily occurrence, it must seem to the Afghan-in-the-street that he or she needs to be protected from us. The general recognizes this when he blasts the crudity of our military operations, yet he is caught in a conundrum, since he naturally cannot acknowledge that this adversarial relationship will never change, no matter how many hospitals, bridges, schools, and whatnot we build. A foreign invader is never going to be considered a good guy by those he has conquered, and there’s no way around it.

The litany of problems recited by McChrystal should give pause to even the most gung-ho warmonger: aside from an Afghan government that has practically zero support among the population, the prison system has become a generator of insurgent recruits, as Islamist activists are incarcerated in the same jails as ordinary criminals, who are easily converted to the insurgent cause. Regional actors are intervening, from the Pakistanis to the Iranians to the Indians, and playing off one faction against another, all to the detriment of the American/NATO cause.

The general’s solution is to clean up the prisons – we were so good at that in Iraq – and offer "a credible program to offer eligible insurgents reasonable incentives to stop fighting and return to normalcy, possibly including the provision of employment and protection."

Normalcy? Is he talking Afghan normalcy? If so, then what’s going on there right now seems pretty "normal" in purely local terms. After all, the country has been in a continuous state of war since the 1980s, when the Russians invaded. Then came the civil war in which the Taliban emerged the victor, and now the Americans are having their turn.

The idea that the U.S. can "win" in Afghanistan assumes we know what victory looks like: this vision of victory is nowhere defined in McChrystal’s memo. But then again, it’s not the role of the military to define the objectives of a military action, only the means to attain them. Defining the objectives is the job of the president – and, once upon a time, Congress. I have to note, however, that, like all government programs, wars have a momentum of their own. Once started, there is every incentive to keep them going long beyond the point where they make any sense. That’s why it’s taking us so long to get out of Iraq and why the Afghan war drags on – even though, as McChrystal himself has stated, there isn’t much sign of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan anymore.

Which leads me to believe that this isn’t about Afghanistan at all, that the country is just a staging ground for a wider, much more ambitious military campaign, whose immediate target is Pakistan. The insurgency, the general avers, "is clearly supported from Pakistan. Senior leaders of the major Afghan insurgent groups are based in Pakistan, are linked with al-Qaeda and other violent extremist groups, and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan’s ISI,” which is its intelligence service. Al-Qaeda and other extremist movements “based in Pakistan channel foreign fighters, suicide bombers, and technical assistance into Afghanistan, and offer ideological motivation, training, and financial support."

McChrystal is clearly itching to strike targets in Pakistan with more than just a few drones every now and then – and before you know it, we’ll be launching yet another invasion and occupation, while the good general exhorts his troops to decrease their "distance" from the Pakistanis and tells us we ought to build more schools and hospitals.

Yes, well, they’ll need more hospitals, no doubt about that.

McChrystal’s conundrum is that invaders cannot be turned into faux-insurgents, "living with the people" and "protecting" them from those awful mujahedin. This can only happen in the fantasy world constructed by military theoreticians and deluded politicians, whose hubris blinds them to simple truths.


There has been a lot of misunderstanding about my recent column, "Our 9/11 Truth, and Theirs," and, although I don’t want to re-open this particular can of worms, I’ve gotten so many e-mails about it that I think it’s important to clarify. It wasn’t my intention to tar anyone who questions the "official" story with the "crackpot" epithet. In retrospect, I think such terminology is sloppy writing, or, more accurately, automatic writing. The use of such epithets is sheer laziness, and for that I owe my readers an apology, which I hope they will accept.

I have my own views as to what happened on 9/11, but they are necessarily tentative: after all, we still don’t know the whole story. The idea that 9/11 was, in some sense, an "inside job" is an assertion that lacks clarity: does this mean some people in the government had foreknowledge? That is certainly possible, since it seems at least one foreign intelligence agency was tracking the hijackers’ every move. Given the recent revelations of Sibel Edmonds, the former FBI translator who discovered evidence of a massive spy operation at the highest reaches of the U.S. government – selling and trading secrets, including nuclear and other military technology to foreign officials and criminal gangs – I wouldn’t be surprised if the corruption went even further. Edmonds also maintains that the U.S. government was running al-Qaeda all over the Balkans and Central Asia right up until the day those planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].