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Let’s blow the fog away and see what General McChrystal really said

23 September 2009

Summary:  the McChrystal’s Assesment consists of layers of absurdity, piled high.  Future generations will study it as a prime example of early 21st century madness, when such a thing was taken seriously.

Essentials of the McChrystal’s Initial Commander’s Assessment of the Af-Pak War, released 30 August 2009.

  1. Amnesia is the essential requirement
  2. The key strategic element is that we have no strategy.
  3. Hope is the plan, cost is no object.
  4. Nation-building in Afghanistan today.  Mexico next?
  5. For more information from the FM site, and the Afterword

(1)  Amnesia is the essential requirement

Amnesia is the essential requirement to be an American geopolitical guru — or Amerian journalist covering geopolitics.  As described in How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan? (15 September 2009), we are closely following the military’s playbook for escalating a small war — perfected in Vietnam.  This remains invisible to many experts, as in this excerpt from Stratfor’s “McChrystal and the Search for a Strategy in Afghanistan“, 22 September 2009:

This is a statement by an officer of the modern U.S. Army, an institution with a broad disdain for the legacy of Gen. William Westmoreland. As first commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam (1964-1968) and then Army chief of staff (1968-72), Westmoreland’s legacy has come to be seen as that of having asked for more and more American troops without a winning strategy. In other words, he continued to commit more American soldiers to a conflict without a strategy that had any real chance for success. While one can debate the history, many in the U.S. Army’s officer corps today consider Westmoreland an officer who did the ultimate disservice to his country — and perhaps more importantly, to his men — by allowing a failed political and military strategy to continue to consume American lives. … With this report, McChrystal has clearly differentiated himself from this path.

Absurd.   For example, the report’s language on page 2-20 could come from DoD report about Vietnam written up to the very end:

Consequently, IASF requires more forces. … The greater resources 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.

In The Quagmire Myth and the Stalemate Machine Daniel Ellsberg explains how this works:

In the light of the internal documentation in the Pentagon Papers, it appears that the pattern of Presidential choice described above for 1961 applies virtually across-the-board to major presidential initiatives on Vietnam over the last 2 decades … No more than in 1961 were any of the measures of increased involvement that a President actually adopted described to him by officials as being adequate “last steps”, or indeed, as anything but holding actions, adequate to avoid defeat in the short run but long shots so far as ultimate success was concerned.

(2)  The key strategic element is that we have no strategy.

Excerpt from “On War #316: Last exit before Quagmire“, William Lind, Defense and the National Interest, 22 September:

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.

(3)  Hope is the plan, cost is no object.

There are no estimates of the cost in money or blood required to get the job done in Afghanistan.  That’s ominous given the accellerating mission creep during the past few years (well-documented by Michael Cohen’s Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch).  Even more ominous is the bleak assessment of the Aghanistan government’s legitimacy, considered vital in the COIN manual.

(a)  From Michael Cohen, Democracy Arsenal, 21 September 2009:

This graf in the report really jumped out at me:

The absence of personal and economic security, along with the erosion of public confidence in the government, and a perceived lack of respect for Afghan culture pose as great a challenge to ISAF’s success as the insurgent threat. Protecting the population is more than preventing insurgent violence and intimidation. It also means that ISAF can no longer or tacitly accept abuse of power, corruption, or marginalization. (p. 2-10)

And how precisely is ISAF going to do this? Hamid Karzai just brazenly stole the Afghan presidential election, right under the nose of the US and NATO – one in three ballots are in question. Color me crazy, but he doesn’t seem overly concerned about NATO’s upbraiding when it comes to abuse of power or corruption.

Precisely what leverage do we have over Karzai and the Kabul government to act responsibly when as far as McChrystal seems concerned, we have to stay in Afghanistan for the long haul?

(b)  Excerpt from “McChrystal on the Afghan Election and the Karzai Government“, Spencer Ackerman, Washington Independent, 21 September 2009:

Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Afghanistan strategy review is absolutely scathing in its assessment of the Afghan government. It raises the effect of its corruption and incompetence to a strategic threat on par with the insurgency, and calls it a “crisis of popular confidence”:

… that springs from the weakness of [Afghan government] institutions, the unpunished abuse of power by corrupt officials and power-brokers, a widespread sense of political disenfranchisement, and a longstanding lack of economic opportunity. ISAF errors have further compounded the problem. These factors generate recruits for the insurgent groups, elevate local conflicts and power-broker disputes to a national level, degrade the people’s security and quality-of-life, and undermine international will. … Insufficiently addressing [this threat] will result in failure.

That should set alarm bells ringing. Is a government that was willing to return itself to power by stealing an election really willing to enact the kind of good-government reforms that would be necessary to mitigate this threat?

(c)  McChrystal’s real opinion might be much bleaker (update)

I recommend reading in full this article:  “U.S. Afghan Campaign Plan Says Key Groups Back Taliban“, Gareth Porter, Inter-Press Service, 22 September 2009 — Red emphasis added.  Excerpt:

What may be even more important about McChrystal’s assessment, however, is that it presents a highly discouraging picture of the situation in Afghanistan – and that the Integrated Civilian-Military Campaign Plan for Afghanistan to which he had agreed just three weeks earlier was even more pessimistic than his “initial assessment”.

The integrated campaign plan, signed by McChrystal and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry on Aug. 10, said that popular rejection of the Afghan government in the Pashtun region of the country is already so pronounced that “key groups” are supporting the Taliban as the only available alternative to a government they regard as abusive.

The integrated campaign plan is marked “Sensitive but Unclassified”, and has not been released to the public, but a copy has been obtained by IPS.

… The most important difference between the two documents is their conclusion about how much popular support the insurgents have already gained. The McChrystal assessment suggests that the insurgents have been unable to obtain uncoerced popular support.

“Major insurgent groups use violence, coercion and intimidation against civilians to control the population,” the assessment says. It concludes that “popular enthusiasm” for the Taliban and other insurgent groups “appears limited, as does their ability to spread beyond the Pashtun areas”.

… The integrated campaign plan goes further, suggesting that the Taliban have gotten support because they are seen as the only feasible alternative to an abusive government. It notes that most Afghans reject the “Taliban ideology”, but concludes, “Key groups have become nostalgic for the security and justice Taliban rule provided.”

The two documents use different terms to describe the political failure of the Afghan government and its consequences. The McChrystal assessment refers to a popular “crisis of confidence” in the government. But the integrated campaign plan calls it a “crisis of legitimacy” and says the insurgents have “derived some legitimacy by appealing to ideological affinities and fears of ‘foreign occupation’ as well as in quick provision of local justice.”

(4)  Nation-building in Afghanistan today.  Mexico next?

McChrystal makes no realistic effort to explain how we will rebuild the Afghanistan State.  Andrew J. Bacevich explained the magnitude of this task in “The War We Can’t Win – Afghanistan & the Limits of American Power“, Commonweal, 14 August 2009 – Excerpt:

Yet any politician calling for the commitment of sixty thousand U.S. troops to Mexico to secure those interests or acquit those moral obligations would be laughed out of Washington — and rightly so. Any pundit proposing that the United States assume responsibility for eliminating the corruption that is endemic in Mexican politics while establishing in Mexico City effective mechanisms of governance would have his license to pontificate revoked. Anyone suggesting that the United States possesses the wisdom and the wherewithal to solve the problem of Mexican drug trafficking, to endow Mexico with competent security forces, and to reform the Mexican school system (while protecting the rights of Mexican women) would be dismissed as a lunatic. Meanwhile, those who promote such programs for Afghanistan, ignoring questions of cost and ignoring as well the corruption and ineffectiveness that pervade our own institutions, are treated like sages.

The contrast between Washington’s preoccupation with Afghanistan and its relative indifference to Mexico testifies to the distortion of U.S. national security priorities induced by George W. Bush in his post-9/11 prophetic mode — distortions now being endorsed by Bush’s successor. It also testifies to a vast failure of imagination to which our governing classes have succumbed.

This failure of imagination makes it literally impossible for those who possess either authority or influence in Washington to consider the possibility

  1. that the solution to America’s problems is to be found not out there—where “there” in this case is Central Asia-but here at home;
  2. that the people out there, rather than requiring our ministrations, may well be capable of managing their own affairs relying on their own methods; and
  3. that to disregard (1) and (2) is to open the door to great mischief and in all likelihood to perpetrate no small amount of evil.

Needless to say, when mischief or evil does occur — when a stray American bomb kills a few dozen Afghan civilians, for instance — the costs of this failure of imagination are not borne by the people who inhabit the leafy neighborhoods of northwest Washington, who lunch at the Palm or the Metropolitan Club, and school their kids at Sidwell Friends.

So the answer to the question of the hour — What should the United States do about Afghanistan? — comes down to this: A sense of realism and a sense of proportion should oblige us to take a minimalist approach. As with Uruguay or Fiji or Estonia or other countries where U.S. interests are limited, the United States should undertake to secure those interests at the lowest cost possible.

(5a)  For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the following:

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.

Some posts about the war in Afghanistan:

  1. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
  2. Real experts review a presentation about the War (look here, if you’re looking for well-written analysis!), 21 June 2009
  3. The Big Lie at work in Afghanistan – an open discussion, 23 June 2009
  4. “War without end”, a great article by George Wilson, 27 June 2009
  5. Powerful insights about our war in Afghanistan, part 1, 18 July 2009
  6. We are warned about Afghanistan, but choose not to listen (part 2), 19 July 2009
  7. Powerful insights about our war in Afghanistan, part 3, 20 July 2009
  8. You can end our war in Afghanistan, 20 August 2009
  9. “Afghanistan by the Numbers – Measuring a War Gone to Hell”, by Tom Engelhardt, 9 September 2009
  10. How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan?, 15 September 2009

(5b)  Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. Mikyo permalink
    23 September 2009 1:39 pm

    Is it “Peace With Honor” yet?

  2. Nicholas Weaver permalink
    23 September 2009 2:43 pm

    No, its the Boss Level of Quagmires: “The Unwinnable War in Afghanistan“, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, 17 Sept 2009 — “If America wins the war in Afghanistan, it will get nothing but its initials as the high score on the big board of history.”

  3. senecal permalink
    23 September 2009 5:41 pm

    Bacevich’s comment in the last section is superb — the real issues for the US are “here”, not “out there”. Our whole ME and Central Asian military and foreign policy would appear to be completely at odds with our true self-interest. The truth must be that the academic “geo-strategists” who are responsible for this policy have been corrupted by the combined influences of the military and military providers, if not on themselves directly than on the political parties they’re aligned with. It’s not surprising to find the intellectual class in a society aligned with its prevailing powers.

  4. TulsaTime permalink
    23 September 2009 8:13 pm

    The great american tradition of more will solve everything. Got bad government? MORE govt. Got bad credit? MORE credit will fix it. This is a grand tradition going back to the civil war if not before. It’s also why we can’t build anything basic, from a rifle to an airplane. It’s gotta fire multi-mode bullets and engage the spanish armada and be invisible.

    Panic mode has to set in before enhancement mode drops out. But we are not (yet) in panic mode, so we must keep up appearances. Just as with the economy, the government will do anything to shore up the present situation in the false hope they can figure it out later. Since they have no concept of how bad ‘it’ is, events will have to trigger the next phase. Let’s hope it is not the loss of a small unit out on the periphery.

  5. anna nicholas permalink
    23 September 2009 10:23 pm

    FM wrote, a few days ago , that there was no shortage of solutions, just the will to try them. I cant quite recall reading a load of solutions , other than (1) US led military (2)US led pseudo-military ( armed ex military ,protecting a few reckless civilian engineers )
    There are some other solutions on the drawing board ? Do tell .
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: You are referring to this statement I made on 21 September about our political economy —

    But the problem is not a lack of solutions. The problems are obvious, at some level, to most Americans. We lack the collective will to put the political machinery in motion, and leaders with sufficient skills to assemble the necessary coalition.

    After 8 years in Afghanistan, we havea small range of possible actions. Time narrows the range of options.

  6. Nicholas Weaver permalink
    23 September 2009 11:25 pm

    anna nicholas: Yes, there is one more proposed solution. “Claim victory and pull out”.

  7. Oblat permalink
    23 September 2009 11:28 pm

    There are real gems of humor in the McCrystal document:

    “The US came to Afghanistan vowing to deny [Taliban and Al Qaeda] safe haven in 2001. They have gone from inaccessible mountain hideouts to recruiting and indoctrinating hiding in the open, in [US run prisons]. There are more [active] insurgents per a square foot in corrections facilities then anywhere else in Afghanistan. Unchecked Taliban/Al Qaeda leaders patiently coordinate and plan [from within prison], unconcerned with interference from prison personal or the military.”

    At least we know where the new Al Qaeda and Taliban training camps are, and who is funding them. We are.

    Solution: hand over the prison system to the corrupt Afghan government.

    “The war was being run by a bunch of four star clowns who were gonna end up giving the whole circus away.”
    — Captain Benjamin L. Willard in Apocalypse Now (1979)

  8. Oblat permalink
    23 September 2009 11:37 pm

    The McCrystal plan looks like Vietnam because it’s the same army. After Vietnam the US military didn’t learn or innovate, instead it went into denial, ultimately resulting in the Powell doctrine which is basically – “we don’t do insurgencies”.

    So you have this remarkably expensive military establishment that cant fight major powers because of the risk of nuclear war and won’t fight any country bigger than 6 million (Burundi, Tajikistan, El Salvador, Benin) because it isn’t able to muster enough resources to win an insurgency there. What is left is the odd dictator who everyone hates and has no supporters, and pipsqueak countries with hardly any people (Grenada, Haiti, Panama)

    This was the “military hyper-power” that “made its own reality”.

    It was worse than wrong it was stupid. And stupidity in geopolitics doesn’t lead to failure it results in exploitation. 18 guys with box cutters and a plan made full use of it. by forcing the US into an insurgency it was desperate to avoid.

    Osama’s strategy of dragging the US into a series of disastrous quagmires through provocation is going like gangbusters.

    McCrystals “strategy” isn’t a strategy at all. It’s an elaborate wish list. It doesn’t reference Taliban or Al Qaeda behavior – other than to say the whole war could be lost if they do something, it doesn’t even have any realistic ideas about how Afghan government behavior will be changed.

    The document is a tour-de-force of military provincialism of all sorts but it’s most glaring failure is it’s narcissistic inability to think about anything else but its own actions. As if strategy was a process of drawing up a list of what you want for Christmas.

    I’m only surprised that it doesn’t say that everyone will get a pony.

  9. Oblat permalink
    24 September 2009 12:20 am

    Solutions ? There aren’t always solutions. The acme of strategy is to put your opponent in the horns of a dilemma, from which there are no solutions, just varying degrees of failure.
    The US is trapped between military failure and the delusions of it’s own culture by Bin Laden.

    Of the two military defeat is much easier to deal with. Changing cultural delusions takes at least a generation even after great shocks.

    “Israel had learned that there’s no way to win an occupation. The only issue, (Ehud) Barak told Cheney (in a meeting), was choosing the size of your humiliation.” – SH

    The reality is Obama needs to manage the defeat in Afghanistan and the longer that is put off with delaying plans such as McCrystals the worse the end is going to be.

    Bush could have negotiated a deal with the Taliban before the war started but he made absolutely sure that it wasn’t possible. Obamas position now is much much weaker but a deal may well still be possible. If he wants to try out McCrystals plan first for the next few years he can pretty much forget about getting any deal afterwards.

    The trick is to hide the reality from Americans so they can swallow it.

  10. Mikyo permalink
    24 September 2009 12:25 am

    Ha ha! Jon Stewart has a new fan :)

  11. Mikyo permalink
    24 September 2009 7:58 am

    Jon Stewart can say things that McCrystal can not say. McCrystal works for us. Only we can bring him home.

  12. houswife permalink
    24 September 2009 9:13 am

    The main problem is the war aim! I wonder, if the JCC ever asks the President, what do we want to get at the end and insist on something meaningful. A little political common sense would tell us *all*, the time for revenge slipped away.

  13. joey permalink
    24 September 2009 10:42 am

    Has anyone noticed the almost onionesc reactions of defense officials to the Taliban insurgency? “Taliban Widen Afghan Attacks From Base in Pakistan“, NY Times, 23 Sept 2009.

    “Taliban actually reacts to our moves” say dumbfounded pentagon officials!

    “Taliban not only human, but capable of rational thought” blurts startled policy wonk

    “Enemy has a plan” admits dismayed DOD

  14. Nicholas Weaver permalink
    24 September 2009 1:12 pm

    Mikyo: Jon Stewart can say things that McCrystal can not say

    This is an endemic problem with the military’s command: they either can’t see or are unwilling to say when a quagmire is a quagmire.

    Did anyone above the rank of Colonel in Vietnam admit publically during the conflict that Vietnam was unwinnable and/or publically resign?

    Did anyone above the rank of Colonel in the current military chain of command speak out or resign over the obviously reckless pursuit of Iraq? Over Afghanistan?

    Rather, I actually think the army learned a LOT from Vietnam in how to run a quagmire:

    a) Force protection above all, and carefully control the press images. As long as the fatality rate is lower than the nation’s highways, so most people don’t know a dead soldier (if each dead solder knows 100 people well, thats only 80,000 voters touched in this way by the war in afghanistan), and as long as there are no pictures of flag-draped caskets, burned civilians, public executions, etc, the public will tolerate the war.

    b) Never admit failure. If you admit failure, your career is over and you’ll end up effectively an exile in Australia. Instead, always speak in terms of Freeman units.

    The military has not learned how to win as an imperial force against a local insurgency (it may not be possible short of decimation, or barring that, ‘declare victory and pull out’), but has learned how to run an imperial occupation without the US population objecting and keeping careers intact.

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