Friday, June 25, 2010
McChrystal's Exit: What Does It Mean for Afghanistan?
Here's the link to an article of mine published by ORF on the exit of Gen. McChrystal and what it means for Afghanistan.
Indiscretion is the one thing that General Stanley McChrystal could be blamed for. It is not the COIN strategy, also now known as the McChrystal strategy that was at fault, but the manner in which he dismissed some members of the political or diplomatic class that was at fault. Should he have been sacrificed on account of that? What about punishing Ambassador Eikenberry and others for leaking secret cables to the media and bringing out in the open the country's divisiveness in its AfPak strategy? What does McChrystal's exit mean for the war on terror in Afghanistan?
President Obama opting for General Patraeus to take charge of Afghanistan appears to be not a bad option given that both he and General McChrystal had worked together in developing and implementing the current COIN strategy in Afghanistan. Even Obama's statement that replacing McChrystal with Patraeus was not “based on any difference in policy with General McChrystal” makes one believe that there is going to be continuity in the strategy and the manner in which the war will be taken forward. This is not to suggest that Patraeus and Obama have an excellent equation. A story in Time brought out their problems which seem to have begun in Obama's first meeting with Patraeus in Baghdad in 2008 during the presidential campaign. Apparently, the Obama-Patraeus disagreement was over Obama's intention to pull out all combat troops from Iraq by 2010.
Eikenberry's argument that the surge strategy, which has been a critical component of the current strategy, was not going to be effective was little premature. McChrystal's strategy was being criticized as a failure even before it could take off. The facts on the ground may appear to support such criticism because of the sharp spike in the violence level in Afghanistan in the last few months. But this spike was expected. In fact, the violence level in Iraq went up before it started coming down. The fact of the matter is that McChrystal had a dedicated team of men with him to do what had to be done.
More importantly, the General was liked by President Hamid Karzai. And Eikenberry is wrong about Karzai too. Instead of ridiculing Karzai, as evident in Eikenberry's cable message, he should have realized that the US has to go with the best choice it has. It is also wrong to sit and pass judgment at Karzai making deals with Taliban given that the US has made it clear that it will be packing its bag in a year's time. Karzai was left with no option but to make peace with the good/bad Taliban. It is naïve to assume that he would sacrifice his government and see Taliban in power in Afghanistan again. In the absence of a clear policy from Washington, Karzai can be seen to be doing more peace jirgas and gain some kind of recognition from the Taliban even at the cost of US unhappiness.
If the current COIN strategy continued, McChrystal was going to request for another 30,000 soldiers for Afghanistan. It remains to be seen whether such a request will be made by General Patraeus and whether it will be accepted by Washington. But Eikenberry's argument that increased strength of US forces in Afghanistan will only increase Afghan dependence on the US instead of developing their own forces is a bit of a stretch.
The more fundamental issue after having thrown McChrystal out is whether there is clarity in Washington about what they want to do in Afghanistan and what kind of an outcome they would like to see in Afghanistan. What kind of a message is Washington sending to Karzai and even Pakistan for that matter? Is there any agreement between the political and diplomatic sections in Washington as to what they want to achieve in Afghanistan? Or is the superpower ready to take a beating and leave Afghanistan?
Lastly, it is unclear what this episode says about President Obama. Obama's approach has left even coalition partners wondering on the AfPak strategy. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain's special envoy to Afghanistan, has already gone on an extended leave – an indication of his disagreement over the US policy. The Obama Administration has to recognise that Afghanistan is not a war that can be fought easily or alone; the US has to build in a larger coalition of nations, particularly the neighbours, to make long-lasting changes in Afghanistan. Until then, Obama is going to be taken for a ride by Pakistan by making piece-meal arrangements that have kept the Americans happy all this while.
1.However, there are significant differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. In the case of Iraq, most of the war was fought in urban centres, which is not the case in Afghanistan. Afghan is much larger and given the mountainous terrain, it is a much harder task. Therefore, the kind of force level that is needed to clean up an area and then hold is going to be significantly larger. There was also the application of full-spectrum warfare – to use all the available tools in the kit – in Iraq which needs to be replicated in Afghanistan.