All In On Hearts And Minds
The Pentagon is replacing the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, less than a year after he took over, marking a major overhaul in military leadership of a war that has presented President Obama with a worsening national security challenge.
Defense officials said that General McKiernan was removed because of what they described as a conventional approach to what has become one of the most complicated military challenges in American history. He is to be replaced by Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, a former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command who recently ran all special operations in Iraq.
The decision reflects a belief that the war in Afghanistan has grown so complex that it needs a commander drawn from the military’s unconventional warfare branch.
In other words, more of the rise of the counterinsurgents.
This is a big deal. McKiernan was running the biggest national security challenge of the young Administration, and Obama might have felt he needed his own man in there. But it really looks like the war effort has been handed over to the counterinsurgents, with David Petraeus in the lead (Stanley McChrystal, the new general, was essentially the right-hand man for Petraeus in Iraq). At this point, it's important to understand the implications of that. A counter-insurgency strategy is designed to break the links between insurgents and the local population by bringing the locals around to the side of the dominant authority. This is nothing new, by the way - they called it "winning hearts and minds" back in Vietnam. And then as now, the dominant authority, behind the US military, was an illusion of a central government. The Diem and Thieu governments in Vietnam were basically kleptocracies, and the public gradually moved away from them. In Afghanistan, public officials facilitate the drug trade and the central government is hopelessly corrupt. Hamid Karzai has no legitimacy, and has recently taken to offering olive branches to warlords to try and restore it. At some point, you must offer people something beyond endless occupation. If they have no faith in the government to provide services, all the counter-insurgency in the world won't counteract a member of the Taliban offering goods. So COIN must have something attractive at its end, and right now I don't see that being the case in Afghanistan.
There's also this fun bit of McChrystal's record:
One spot on his generally sterling military record came in 2007, when a Pentagon investigation into the accidental shooting death in 2004 of Cpl. Pat Tillman by fellow Army Rangers in Afghanistan held General McChrystal accountable for inaccurate information provided by Corporal Tillman’s unit in recommending him for a Silver Star.
The information wrongly suggested that Corporal Tillman, a professional football player whose decision to enlist in the Army after the Sept. 11 attacks drew national attention, had been killed by enemy fire.
McChrystal also sought a "declaration of victory" over Al Qaeda in Iraq back in October 2007. Hopefully the same kind of rose-colored assessment won't take root in Afghanistan.