Selection of Petraeus means Afghan strategy survives
WASHINGTON — Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s career could not survive another embarrassing public fight with his superiors, but America’s fundamental strategic plan for conducting the war in Afghanistan may have.
Last summer, McChrystal was put in charge of U.S. forces in the region specifically because of his ability to enact Gen. David Petraeus’ controversial counterinsurgency strategy, which emphasized not only fighting insurgents but also winning the trust of the local population by reducing civilian casualties and building an effective Afghan government.
The natural tension between those two goals has long provoked schisms between Afghan and U.S. leaders, American soldiers and their own commanders and the Pentagon and the White House.
Now, with President Barack Obama’s decision to install Petraeus at the head of the Afghan war effort, the White House appears to be signaling its intention to stay the counterinsurgency course.
“This is a change of personnel,” Obama declared Wednesday in the White House Rose Garden, “but it is not a change in policy.”
However, thanks to the Rolling Stone article this week that ended McChrystal’s role as commander of the Afghan campaign, it’s clear that even some of the general’s closest aides doubt whether the counterinsurgency strategy, known as COIN, can actually lead to a clear victory in what has become America’s longest war.
“It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win,” Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, McChrystal’s chief of operations, was quoted by Rolling Stone as saying. “This is going to end in an argument.”
Such comments, coupled with the scant signs of progress by U.S. forces in the last year, could yet deal a blow to supporters of the counterinsurgency philosophy--and have already emboldened opponents to demand that the White House rethink the entire approach.
“This is a bigger story than Stanley McChrystal,” said Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. “After this all shakes out, the questions about the counterinsurgency strategy will remain.”
Many soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan say they still generally support the counterinsurgency strategy.
Capt. John Villasenor, the commander of Troop B, 1st Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, said a dramatic shift toward raising enemy body counts would erase the gains that U.S. and Canadian troops have made with the local population in his area.
“If we pull back to the big bases and do surgical strikes, all we’re going to do is give the enemy freedom of movement,” he said. “If you’re just doing surgical strikes and being enemy-focused, then you’re being reactionary. You end up chasing the Taliban, and what happens then? How long have we been chasing Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar?”
But in recent months troops have begun to complain more forcefully about the counterinsurgency concept being carried too far. Limits on when troops can enter homes or use deadly force, put in place to win “hearts and minds” among the Afghan population, remain unpopular with even with warfighters supportive of the philosophy.
“It’s gotten to the point where we can’t do what we need to do to show that we are stronger than the Taliban,” said 1st Lt. Dave Emison, 25, of Stafford, Virginia, a platoon leader in central Marjah. “I was in a shura (meeting) just two days ago with an elder who absolutely told me that the Marines need to be more aggressive. He said, ‘I don’t understand why they shoot at you from 300 yards away and you don’t do anything.’”
Under rules of engagement put into place in the year that McChrystal has been the top general in Afghanistan, NATO forces have been ordered not to fire into Afghan compounds unless they are taking direct fire from inside. If they want to fire anything heavier than a machine gun, they have to first verify that the only people in that compound are insurgents.
Emison lost two of his men since February and sent a squad’s worth of men home wounded. He believes that if his men were allowed to fight more aggressively, the insurgents would not be as bold as they are -- emplacing homemade bombs known as IEDs right under the noses of the Marines and engaging in firefights just a few hundred yards from their heavily armed bases.
“While I do understand the need to protect the civilians -- and I know a lot of Marines signed up for this -- it doesn’t make it easier when one of your men dies and you have to explain it to the other Marines,” he said.
Petraeus authored the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency field manual.
“Political, social, and economic programs are usually more valuable than conventional military operations as a means to ... undermine an insurgency,” he wrote.
Nevertheless, Preble said it’s clear that the conflict over Afghan strategy between military officials and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, must be repaired. Eikenberry has been a vocal critic of the counterinsurgency approach, and offered far less public support to Afghan president Hamid Karzai than McChrystal.
Retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, another critic of counterinsurgency, said finding a military counterpart with similar views to Eikenberry is difficult. Officers who favor a smaller, more focused fighting force in Afghanistan have been marginalized since McChrystal’s appointment.
“They’re still in the ranks,” he said. “But if you open your mouth publicly, you’re dead. What Obama needs to do is find a fresh set of eyes, someone who isn’t aligned with the counterinsurgency strategy, and look at some new solutions.”
Richard Fontaine, senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, said he doubts the White House or Pentagon has the desire to go through another review so soon. Even though McChrystal has been the face of counterinsurgency planning, Fontaine rejects the idea that the entire strategy rests solely on his personality.
“The people who had doubts about it before this episode will still have their doubts,” he said.
Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told lawmakers that critics have been too quick to label the past year of war as a failure, and that constant second-guessing of strategy is doomed to failure.
But at the same time he acknowledged that the military offensive in southern Afghanistan is going slower than planned, that corruption is still rampant among Afghan security forces, and that U.S. casualties have risen sharply recently.