It is no surprise that President Obama decided to sack General Stanley McChrystal after he and his aides were quoted criticising the president and other senior administration officials in Rolling Stone – of all places. But the debacle has revealed the extent of the deepening divisions between senior US Army officials in charge of the offensive in Afghanistan, and the wider US government. Most of all, their disparaging remarks about Obama, envoy to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, vice-president Joe Biden and national security adviser Jim Jones illustrate a perception among senior military officers that the civilian government is increasingly out of touch with what is happening on the ground.
Indeed, shielded beneath the surface of this bureaucratic squabbling over name-calling is the increasingly uncomfortable fact that we are simply not winning this war – and that Obama’s troop surge, originally proposed by McChrystal, has only made the situation worse. Although Obama has been quick to emphasise with his appointment of General David Petraeus that the counterinsurgency strategy developed by McChrystal for Afghanistan will continue unchanged, the truth is that the current re-shuffling serves to distract from the dire facts on the ground, but is unlikely to change them without a fundamental re-think of our Afghan policy.
Despite now nearly 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan, there are no signs of an allied victory. A Pentagon report submitted to US Congress earlier in April confirmed that overall violence in Afghanistan has increased by 90 per cent over the preceding year, prompted by increasing allied offensives in Taliban-controlled areas as well as Taliban successes in re-capturing regions previously cleared by US forces. The bulk of this dramatic increase was from a 240 per cent spike in roadside bomb attacks. Then just a few days ago, the UN Security Council published its own damning assessment that in the first four months of 2010 alone, there has been a doubling of violence, including suicide attacks, roadside bombings and political assassinations – with targeted killings of Afghan officials increasing by 45 per cent, largely in the south where the insurgency is concentrated.
Although both the Pentagon and UN reports go out of their way to suggest that the long-term outlook for stability is positive, internal US Army assessments are far more pessimistic. In the summer 2009 edition of Military Review, a refereed journal published by the US Army Combined Arms Center, Afghanistan veteran and senior NATO official Lt. Col. Thomas Brouns observes of the war that “victory remains elusive.” Despite “tactical and local successes”, he warns, “the possibility of strategic defeat looms ever larger... Since the earliest days of Operation Enduring Freedom, violent incidents have increased roughly in parallel to the overall troop strength.” Indeed, Brouns – who has deployed on four tours to Kabul – points out that “facts on the ground are not working in our favour... the incidence of events and accompanying casualties (to include civilians) have climbed even faster than troop strength”, including insurgents’ resort to suicide bombings and political killings. The idea that the problem can be solved by “increases in troop strength” is therefore “a dubious one.” This is compounded by the “failure of many investments and projects to reach remote rural areas where poverty predominates”, providing “fertile ground for insurgent recruitment.” Afghans, he argues, “need to see delivery on promises of improved security and tangible improvements in their personal situation – and soon, if we hope to provide lasting stability.”
Yet under the terms of Obama’s current Afghan strategy, now to be pursued by Petraeus, this is impossible. One of the major problems is our supposed regional ally – Pakistan – as two reports out this month corroborate. The first, by Harvard University fellow Dr. Matt Walden, published by the London School of Economics Crisis States Research Centre, found based on interviews with Taliban field commanders and Western defence officials that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) continues to be “the provider of sanctuary and substantial financial, military and logistical support to the insurgency” as a part of its ‘official policy’ of exerting “strong strategic and operational influence on the Afghan Taliban.” Following hot on its heels came a RAND Corp. report which documented ongoing official Pakistani ISI support for militant Islamist terrorist networks such as the al-Qaeda affiliated Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. “Militant groups persist in the nation because Pakistani leaders continue to provide support to some groups”, the study noted, urging that “a key objective of US policy must be to get Pakistan to end its support to militant groups.”
The irony is that this is hardly news to the US government. Confidential NATO reports and US intelligence assessments circulated to White House officials have documented consistent cases of ISI sponsorship of Taliban insurgents since 2004. Indeed, in 2008 US intelligence intercepted a communication in which ISI chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiani described senior Taliban leader, Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, as a “strategic asset” – although Haqqani’s insurgent network has been a key target for US Predator drone strikes. Despite this, last year Obama persuaded Congress to sign-up for an unconditional $6 billion in military and economic assistance to Pakistan for five years.
The Afghan-Pakistan strategy is not working, and Gen. Petraeus will do no better than his loud-mouthed predecessor. The imperative now should be to withdraw and cease all military aid to Pakistan, making all aid conditional on cessation of support for militant and terrorist groups; to swiftly draw-down and pull-out military forces from Afghanistan; and to re-direct the remaining military budgets into massively increasing humanitarian and developmental aid to Afghans, including re-doubling reconstruction investments.