The Magazine

Give McChrystal a Fighting Chance

The war effort is succeeding in parts of Afghanistan-with time and troops the gains can be consolidated.

Nov 2, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 07 • By MAX BOOT
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What the United States learned in Iraq is that the most effective training comes not from embedded advisory teams, much less from trainers who stay safely on base, but from American and indigenous units forced to operate side by side as they go into combat. That is happening now in Afghanistan, especially in Regional Command-East, where training teams are being phased out in favor of a concept called "Combined Action." (Regional Command-South lags a bit behind because it has fewer Afghan soldiers for now.) Major General Curtis Scaparotti, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, which has responsibility for Regional Command-East, has even dispatched his assistant division commanders to set up forward command posts at the headquarters of the two Afghan Army corps that operate in his area. Here U.S. and Afghan officers are starting to sit side by side, working on identical computers, to better coordinate their two forces. That kind of partnership extends all the way down to the platoon level, with McChrystal ordering that all NATO operations be undertaken jointly with Afghan forces. But to carry out this edict while the Afghan security forces are expanding, the United States, too, will have to expand its commitment, at least for the short term.

To listen to some critics, McChrystal's efforts are doomed to fail because of the fundamental illegitimacy of the Afghan government--an argument buttressed by the fraud that pervaded the presidential balloting in August. But lack of government capacity is hardly unique to Afghanistan. It has been an issue in every country that has ever faced a serious insurgency. A strong government, by definition, wouldn't allow a major rebellion in the first place. Lack of capacity has crippled some counterinsurgencies over the years but that problem has also successfully been dealt with in many countries that defeated guerrillas and terrorists. The most recent example is Iraq, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had even less legitimacy in 2007 at the start of the surge than Hamid Karzai has today.

It would be shortsighted indeed if we were to use Afghanistan's woes as an excuse to write off the country as we did once before in the 1990s with disastrous consequences. It makes more sense to surge military and civilian resources that can enable American commanders to work with their Afghan counterparts to improve governance along with security.

That is precisely what McChrystal is planning to do. He is fed up with foreign forces' looking the other way when they uncover evidence of corruption. He has set up a Combined Joint Interagency Task Force made up of intelligence, law enforcement, and military personnel to investigate major cases of narcotics-linked corruption. This is in lieu of the sort of crop-eradication efforts the United States has supported in the past, which served more to alienate farmers than to de-fund the Taliban. The cases developed by the task force can be turned over to the Afghan legal system or simply used to quietly pressure the culprits to leave office.

This is part of a larger effort to establish accountability for foreign aid spending and to make Afghanistan's public-sector spending more transparent and honest. As part of this effort it would be useful to raise government salaries. The notoriously low wages paid to security personnel and civil servants are a major inducement for corruption. Many government employees cannot live on their salaries, and soldiers and policemen make less money ($160 a month and $110 a month respectively) than the Taliban ($300 a month). It also makes sense to embed foreign advisers with Afghan governors and some district leaders, bringing to the civil sphere the kind of close partnering that goes on among military personnel.

Improving the performance of the Afghan government and improving the performance of Afghan Security Forces are two of the top priorities that General McChrystal has pounded into his command since taking over as head of NATO and U.S. forces in June. He also stresses the need to do a better job in "strategic communications" and in detention operations--the former designed to counter enemy propaganda, the latter to keep enemy fighters behind bars in humane conditions where they can be interrogated.

Another priority is to reduce civilian casualties caused by coalition firepower--a major complaint among Afghans. During a daily briefing with his subordinates that I attended, McChrystal stressed this. The Taliban want to posture as protectors of the people, he said, and collateral damage by coalition forces allows them to do so. "We can't say that's just part of war," he said in a raspy voice. "We can put serious pressure on the enemy while minimizing backlash."

This is one of many changes that he has forced on a reluctant and sometimes somnolent NATO command structure. McChrystal drives his troops hard and himself harder. He has brought a sense of urgency that was missing in the past. One senior European officer I talked with noted that the preceding commander, General David McKiernan, painted a "pretty optimistic picture" when he claimed (as he did last winter) that coalition forces had achieved "irreversible momentum" in Regional Command-East. McChrystal, by contrast, warns that unless more is done, the coalition is in danger of losing the war. "McChrystal's arrival has brought a reality check," this officer told me. "McChrystal has been frank enough to force us to ask impertinent questions of ourselves."

One of those "impertinent questions" concerns the deployment of small coalition outposts in remote regions of Regional Command-East along the border with Pakistan. Here small numbers of soldiers were isolated and subject to daily attack in bases that could be supplied only by air. What was the point of having soldiers so far from population centers, McChrystal demanded? Previous commanders had asked the same question, only to hesitate to remove them because they knew that this would represent a propaganda boost for the Taliban. McChrystal went ahead with the consolidation even after insurgents nearly overran Combat Outpost Keating in Nuristan Province in early October, killing eight American soldiers, just days before it was to be dismantled. He insists, rightly, that a successful counterinsurgency strategy must be focused on the people, not on terrain, and that's where he's putting his troops.

McChrystal knows that the American public is impatient and that the counterinsurgency strategy will take time to work, but there is really no alternative unless we are willing to cede Afghanistan to the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies. A narrow counterterrorism strategy focused on simply killing insurgent leaders has never defeated any determined group of guerrillas or terrorists. It may seem like we've been at war in Afghanistan for eight years, but given the lack of resources for most of that time, the war effort is really less than six months old in critical parts of the country. "We are essentially where we were in Iraq in 2004," one American colonel told me. "We're just getting started."

The old tactic of going into an area, killing some insurgents, and leaving was about as effective as "mowing the lawn," in the words of another coalition officer. That has been replaced with the classic ink-spot strategy of slowly spreading government control from one population center to another. After this summer's operations, a few such ink spots are scattered across the Afghan landscape in places like Baraki Barak. But as one Marine battalion commander in the south told me, "For an ink-spot strategy to work you need enough ink." The coalition still has too little.

Nawa is one of the more promising ink spots. This is an agricultural district in the Helmand River Valley, where Lieutenant Colonel Bill McCollough, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, has been implementing a strategy similar to the one Lieutenant Colonel Gukeisen has employed in Baraki Barak. He has created a "security bubble" around the district and poured in aid to win the people's allegiance for the government. The results have been astonishing--a ghost town has come back to life. Streets that were deserted when the Marines arrived are full of pedestrians and vehicles. Stores that were shuttered have reopened. Abdul Manaf, the white-bearded district governor, raved about the results. "The colonel will write his name in history for what he has done here, everyone will know the name of the colonel," he told me. "The enemy's back has been broken. They cannot fight anymore. We will never forget that the Marines and ISAF and the whole world came to help us."

McCollough is more circumspect. "Everything you see here is an eggshell," he warns. "It's fragile." If Obama sends more troops, the gains achieved at such high cost in places like Baraki Barak and Nawa can be consolidated and expanded. If he doesn't, the effects of this summer's offensive, which resulted in such heavy loss of life among coalition soldiers (261 killed and more than 1,200 wounded between June 1 and October 1), will rapidly wear off and the Taliban will reassert control. That is the choice confronting the White House. Given the stakes, it's hard to see why it is proving so difficult for the president to choose.

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, and author most recently of War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today (Gotham, 2006).