General McChrystal's Afghanistan strategy, meet reality

 In Afghanistan

One of the major underlying concerns with US strategy in Afghanistan that is not examined nearly enough is whether it is realistic. Since General McChrystal took over as commander in Afghanistan, he has received high praise for his approach, but many aspects of it haven’t been held up to serious scrutiny. How many people did a double take when reading this in his assessment that was leaked out as President Obama decided whether to send tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan?

ISAF – military and civilian personnel alike – must acquire a far better understanding of Afghanistan and its people. ISAF personnel must be seen as guests of the Afghan people and their government, not an occupying army.

This assessment comes after a presidential election mired in fraud, and in the midst of a steadily rising civilian casualty rate. How is the US military, connected intimately with the Karzai government and working with many warlords who rival the Taliban in brutality, supposed to be seen as a guest, especially given this shocking revelation:

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.

After an eight-year military presence, the military doesn’t understand Afghan politics and culture and expects to navigate this metaphorical (and literal) minefield and be seen as a benevolent guest?

I’m sorry to say General McChrystal’s strategy has not become more grounded in reality in recent weeks. His recognition that civilian casualties are detrimental to stability and US security is commendable, but his good intentions can’t survive the muddled, chaotic environment on the battlefield. More evidence of this problem has emerged in the wake of Operation Moshtarak, designed to reverse the Taliban’s momentum while winning hearts and minds. So far, there have been at least 20 civilian casualties reported in the operation, including a rocket attack on a home where children were amongst the dead. On top of this, a US air strike unrelated to the offensive just killed 27 civilians—women and children, government workers and tribal elders, including one who was reportedly involved in a failed attempt to capture Osama bin Laden:

Now at least 27 of them are dead and more than a dozen hurt, some severely, and the government of President Hamid Karzai is outraged — all at a particularly delicate and potentially decisive moment in a battle for Afghan hearts and minds.

The incident, the worst single episode of civilian casualties in six months, threatened to overshadow what coalition forces had billed as an important milestone in Marja: the first visit to the town by the newly appointed civilian chief, who will preside over a municipal government created essentially from scratch.

It’s fairly obvious that killing community leaders, including ones who have tried to assist the US in the past, fuels resentment and makes being viewed as “guest” seem nearly impossible. The United Nations is reporting that 346 children were killed in Afghanistan last year, more than half of them by NATO forces. UNICEF declared Afghanistan the worst place in the world for a child to be born. We need to ask serious questions about whether we are delivering on promises to improve the quality of life for Afghans, and increase US security by building trust and stability, especially if this is the result of more than eight years in the country.

Clearly, recent efforts at sensitivity to civilian concerns in Marjah have fallen short:

“People still complain about how the house searches are being conducted. The joint forces should not view every person here with suspicion of being a Taliban or a relative of one,” said Abdur Rahman Saber, head of a local council set up before the Marjah offensive to monitor the plight of civilians.

“When the government and its foreign allies want the people on their side, they should respect every resident here. People should not feel any sense of insecurity from Afghan or foreign troops.”

The UN recognizes that this kind of attempt to win hearts and minds is counterproductive, and has refused to participate in the reconstruction phase of Operation Moshtarak:

“If that aid is being delivered as part of a military strategy, the counterstrategy is to destroy that aid,” Mr. Haj-Ibrahim said.

“Allowing the military to do it is not the best use of resources.” Instead, he said, the military should confine itself to clearing an area of security threats and providing security for humanitarian organizations to deliver services.

“The distribution of aid by the military gives a very difficult impression to the communities and puts the lives of humanitarian workers at risk,” Mr. Watkins said.

Last month, eight leading humanitarian organizations working in Afghanistan, including Oxfam and ActionAid, issued a joint report that was highly critical of the International Security Assistance Force, as the American-led NATO force is known, because of “the international militaries’ use of aid as a ‘nonlethal’ weapon of war.”

General McChrystal has apologized for the loss of innocent life after each incident. But no matter how heartfelt those apologies might be, can this pattern of death and apology really repair any damage? General McChrystal was reportedly “apoplectic” in response to the most recent air strike, and this points to the underlying problem—he can’t control everything that happens in Afghanistan, and these mistakes will occur again. As it becomes a morbid routine repeated too many times, it loses meaning, and I can only imagine how it sounds to an Afghan who has lost a loved one.

After all this turmoil and unnecessary civilian death, the US military thinks they are going to helicopter in a “government in a box” and people will accept this new system and forgive and forget. I believe General McChrystal when he says the ISAF doesn’t understand Afghanistan, and I’m not optimistic that will change. It’s time to push for more realistic, less costly alternatives for Afghanistan.

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