The Prospect for Success Under McChrystal

“With the appointment … of McChrystal, it is clear that the “change” we were promised by Obama is just a change of faces: the policies, at least on the foreign policy front, are remarkably similar.” — Justin Raimando

Speaking on the need for “fresh thinking” and “fresh eyes on the problem” Secretary Gates named Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the commander of military operations in Afghanistan. The appointment fits into the counter-insurgency style of combat which has arguably proven effective in Iraq. McChrystal stated his top priorities include “bolstering U.S. intelligence collection, reducing civilian casualties and dramatically speeding up the training of Afghan security forces.” Although these are valuable counter-insurgency tactics, effective implementation in Afghanistan will be a challenge.

From the Western perspective, McChrystal’s strategy is simple in its logic. In Iraq, where there is a remnant of nationalist sentiment among Sunni Arabs, and their ties to al-Qaeda were circumstantial at best, the U.S. bought the allegiance of Sunni insurgents via the “Sons of Iraq.” However, al-Qaeda’s links to the Taliban are stronger and have a history. The durability of the “Sons of Iraq” to the national government is unsettled and the situation in Afghanistan is even more difficult; the opposition is unlikely to be bought off and settle disputes for monetary gains.

Believing the need for troop levels to go above the 134,000 troops proposed by the Obama administration, McChrystal is essentially calling for a “War on Afghanistan.” The U.S. will likely refer to it as a more politically correct “War on the Taliban,” but the tribal forces fragmenting Afghanistan are more complex that the simple Sunni Arabs vs. Shi`a Arabs vs. Sunni Kurds triangle in Iraq. The Shi`a in Iraq dominating the national government are an actual majority, while the Karzai government represents no cohesive social agglomerate in Afghanistan.

Besides, McChrystal’s plan is contingent on cooperation from the Pakistani government. Securing the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan will prove to be a most difficult task. It is doubtful that the Pakistani military can maintain the border without a prolonged American intervention — or even with it.  (And American presence in Pakistan would surely backfire, threatening the eventual fall of Pakistan to who knows what.)

The theory of McChrystal’s strategy is that the US, through collaboration with the Afghan government, will improve infrastructure while smothering the Taliban pressure on the Pakistani border while the Pakistani military performs a similar operation against extremists in its own country. Although the Taliban is a foreign influence in Pakistan’s Northwest territories, the people residing in this area have strong cultural ties to their Afghani counterparts. The flaw in McChrystal’s strategy revolves around its unattended consequences. Given how comfortably ingrained the Taliban are in certain areas, it is hard to separate them from general population. Furthermore, it should be obvious to any outside observer why these areas of Pakistan were semi-autonomous to begin with. If the Pakistani government had adequate national support and the capability of securing these providences, wouldn’t they have done so already?

Even the superficially benign economic assistance can have a blowback effect. In the 1970s Milton Friedman offered economic advice to the Pinochet regime. Although he did not personally support Pinochet, the mere fact that he gave economic advice (mostly ignored or abandoned) allowed critics of Friedman to pretend that he did. We are not in the position of the Marshall Plan in which we reconstruct an economy of a country that has surrendered to us militarily. We are, rather, foreign interveners in a civil war (between the Taliban on one hand and other forces in Afghani society on the other) in which our principle enemy (al-Qaeda) is itself a marginal figure.

Local tribal leaders in Northwest Pakistan are very sympathetic to their Afghani neighbors. Left to their own devises tribal leaders would see Talibanization as a threat to their own status and authority. Under the pressure of violence from the Pakistani government and the American allies, tribal leaders see the Taliban as fellow victims. More conflict will add more refugees to the already overwhelming flood of three million. The populations in these areas will see this as a war against them, augmenting local support for the Taliban and further reducing any chance of this strategy succeeding.  Assuming the Northwest territories will assimilate into a Pakistani national identity requires a giant leap of faith. It ignores the history and cultural connections of the inhabitants and its ultimately doomed to failure. A better strategy would be to focus Pakistani military might on keeping the Taliban out of areas to which they would not be welcome and to let the people in the Northwest provinces discover for themselves why they should reject the Talibanization of their homelands.

Imran Malik, Program Assistant
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, President
Minaret of Freedom Institute


Minaret of Freedom Institute Program Assistant

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