As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, September 21, 2009

Stumbling Into Annihilation

Bob Woodward comes out of the mothballs today and produces a timely leak of an internal document designed to raise the spectre of "defeat" in Afghanistan and get all the serious types behind escalation.

The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan warns in an urgent, confidential assessment of the war that he needs more forces within the next year and bluntly states that without them, the eight-year conflict "will likely result in failure," according to a copy of the 66-page document obtained by The Washington Post.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal says emphatically: "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible." [...]

But he repeatedly warns that without more forces and the rapid implementation of a genuine counterinsurgency strategy, defeat is likely. McChrystal describes an Afghan government riddled with corruption and an international force undermined by tactics that alienate civilians.

He provides extensive new details about the Taliban insurgency, which he calls a muscular and sophisticated enemy that uses modern propaganda and systematically reaches into Afghanistan's prisons to recruit members and even plan operations.

We've heard this argument, or a variation of it, from military commanders for every war in my lifetime, and even before that. We cannot risk defeat, we need ever-increasing numbers of troops, the enemy is always more sophisticated and powerful than anyone ever expects but clearly inferior to us if we only don't "beat ourselves," etc. Gen. Westmoreland could have written this assessment. McChrystal also habitually confuses Al Qaeda and the Taliban, for good measure.

Spencer Ackerman makes the clearest connection and the most obvious: the strategy document was leaked by those who desire escalation and a broad counter-insurgency strategy:

The Washington Post’s headline — “McChrystal: More Forces Or ‘Mission Failure’” — does what the persons who leaked Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Afghanistan strategy review evidently wanted to do: box President Obama in to a static request for more U.S. troops and dare him to refuse his chosen commander’s recommendations. The moves to separate the strategy review, conducted for McChrystal by a group of (mostly) Beltway think tank security experts, from the request for resources and the expectation that the resource request will feature more than just that more-troops request may have been designed to keep the ends and means questions distinct, but they also had the effect of preserving Obama’s freedom of action. There’s going to be pressure on Obama to simply accede to any request for more troops, and the media will frame the request, and Obama’s decision, through that prism. So it’s worth remembering that while we’re reading about the strategy review’s details now, Obama read it weeks ago, and still told David Gregory that he refuses to add troops until he’s convinced that the strategy is correct. His advisers surely figured that it would only be a matter of time before the document leaked.

I would add that this article was mainly for Village consumption. Those who want more war - including that cadre of discredited neocons who still lurk behind every rock in Washington - need to create momentum for an inevitable escalation, such that any contrary action by Obama would produce shock and give an opening to the warmongers to call it a betrayal.

So far, Obama isn't biting, as Ackerman's link above shows. On virtually every Sunday talk show, the President was asked about Afghanistan, and he unilaterally pronounced himself a skeptic on more troops and noted that he didn't want a mission shift but one focused on the fundamental national security goals:

The question that I’m asking right now is to our military, to General McChrystal, to General Petraeus, to all our national security apparatus, is– whether it’s troops who are already there, or any troop request in the future, how does this advance America’s national security interests? How does it make sure that al Qaeda and its extremist allies cannot attack the United States homeland, our allies, our troops who are based in Europe?

And I think that McChrystal, at least, wants to offer a bank shot, claiming that a "Taliban" in power in Afghanistan (I put it in quotes because this iteration of the Taliban is not the same as the one which came to power in 1996, and most of the home-grown fighters just want revenge instead of an Islamic caliphate) would necessarily invite Al Qaeda back to plot world terror attacks. As a result, McChrystal shifts the strategy from disabling Al Qaeda to building a nation durable enough to withstand Taliban pressue, and his strategy seeks practically a one-to-one relationship between military forces and members of the local population. To achieve his ends practically every able man between 19-24 in the United States would need to be conscripted.

The President has good reason for skepticism.

Although Obama endorsed a strategy document in March that called for "executing and resourcing an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy," there have been significant changes in Afghanistan and Washington since then. A disputed presidential election, an erosion in support for the war effort among Democrats in Congress and the American public, and a sharp increase in U.S. casualties have prompted the president and his top advisers to reexamine their assumptions about the U.S. role in defeating the Taliban insurgency [...]

In his 66-page assessment, McChrystal does not address other approaches to combating the Taliban. A senior U.S. military official in Kabul said the general was operating under the assumption that the earlier White House endorsement of a counterinsurgency approach "was a settled issue." ... The implicit recommendation is that the United States and its NATO partners need to do more nation-building, and they need to do it quickly [...]

But senior U.S. officials in Washington contend that much about Afghanistan has changed since March, when Obama stood before a row of flags, flanked by his secretaries of state and defense, and announced the new strategy. The dynamics have even shifted since McChrystal arrived in mid-June and began his assessment.

The principal game-changer, in the view of White House officials, was Afghanistan's presidential election last month, which was compromised by fraud, much of it in support of President Hamid Karzai. Although the results have not been certified, he almost certainly will remain in office, but under a cloud of illegitimacy that could complicate U.S. efforts to promote good governance.

Congressional Democrats have also expressed new doubts about sending more forces to Afghanistan. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said last week that she does not "think there's a great deal of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan in the country or the Congress." Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl M. Levin (Mich.), an influential voice on military matters, said the administration should not send additional forces until more Afghan soldiers have been trained.

The American public, which had broadly supported Obama's determination to focus on Afghanistan instead of Iraq, has begun to question the wisdom of the continued U.S. commitment. The Afghan war was deemed "not worth fighting" by 51 percent of respondents in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The military is becoming impatient; the last line of the above article quotes one Pentagon staffer as saying "there is a frustration. A significant frustration. A serious frustration." I think they expected that, one the President signed off on the COIN strategy, he would listen to their every word and resource accordingly. They figured it was a Democratic President and he would want to look tough and obey the commanders and he would comply with their wishes. And that may be the case. But at this point, Obama looks reachable on the argument that it's unadvisable to engage in a mission creep and escalation in a country without a functioning government to build from or a desire to have Americans build it.

That may upset the military. It would also be, combined with a law enforcement and intelligence strategy to continue to protect from extremist attacks, completely rational and sound.

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