Gen. McChrystal’s vision far from being crystal clear
by Ramtanu Maitra on 26 Mar 2010 0 Comment

US and NATO’s Afghan policy continues to remain as undefined and unfocused as it was during the eight-plus long years of on-going war in Afghanistan. Gen. McChrystal’s latest military operation, Operation Moshtarak, led by the ISAF (a pool of US and NATO troops aided by the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan Police – to wrest control of major Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan is ostensibly a major thrust to put in place McChrystal’s much-ballyhooed counterinsurgency (COIN) operation.


The military campaign was launched by 15,000, or so, US, British and Afghan military personnel with the intent of taking control of Marjah, a town located in the Helmand River valley in the opium-rich Helmand province. After securing Marjah and installing a non-corrupt and efficient administration, US and NATO officials reportedly plan to advance their troops to gain control of some other Helmand river towns. The end point of this campaign is to secure physical control of the city of Kandahar, birthplace and most important bastion of the Afghan Taliban.

That the objective of Operation Moshtarak is to seize control of Kandahar was stated clearly on March 8 by none other than the US and NATO commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Addressing a press conference that day in Kabul in the presence of Mark Sedwill, NATO senior civilian representative to Afghanistan, McChrystal told news persons that the coalition forces “are absolutely going to secure Kandahar.”

 “We already are doing a lot of security operations in Kandahar, but it’s our intent to make an even greater effort there,” Gen McChrystal said. Although he did not divulge the time-frame when the Kandahar offensive will be launched, he said “our forces will be significantly increased around there by early summer.” “What we’re trying to achieve in Kandahar is to do the political groundwork so when it’s time to do the military operation, the significant part of the population is pulling us,” McChrystal added

Winning battles is not COIN

Prior to launching the military campaign, Pentagon used the American mainstream news media to build up Operation Moshtarak as a campaign to break the back of the Afghan Taliban. In reality, Operation Moshtarak is nothing more than yet another tactical move by US and NATO troops to seize some lost grounds in southern Afghanistan - the home of the strongest anti-US/NATO Pushtuns - at a time when the insurgents were gaining grounds rapidly and threatening every citadel considered important to the foreign troops. The capital city of Kabul is now under constant security threats. Over the months, insurgents have proven that they can paralyze Kabul on any given day.

Kandahar has remained virtually under Afghan Taliban’s thumb for years. In reality, most of the provinces in Afghanistan are now under partial, or total, control of the insurgents. In other words, the success of Operation Moshtarak will convey to the insurgents that the foreign troops, using its demonstrable might, are still capable of facing up to the toughest group of insurgents and wrest control of towns where the insurgents rule the roost. Those who are aware of how the Vietnam War was fought in the 1960s will find a remarkable similarity to the Vietnam war campaign-objectives to what Gen. McChrystal is planning to achieve through Operation Moshtarak.

Beyond that, the military operation to wrest control of Marjah, and some other Helmand towns over a period of time, is also a part of the Obama administration’s stated counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy, spelled out at length over previous months by Gen, McChrystal. The objective of the strategy is to clear the town of insurgents; hold the town using military strength; build up an administration that functions; and then transfer power to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) - a mix of Afghan National Army and Afghan police.

COIN includes the so-called winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. The stated goal of the US and NATO forces is not only to ensure that the ANSF will be able to maintain stability in these towns, but by maintaining stability and establishing a durable peace, they would be able to earn the trust, and garner support, of the locals in keeping the insurgents at bay. The hypothesis that is embedded in this policy is that most of the locals, if not all, tend to fall in line with the insurgents only because these areas are poorly administered. The administrators, put in place by Kabul, are non-functional and corrupt. In other words, Kabul’s inability in setting up an honest administration, and the fear of the Taliban force, are what fuel the locals’ support to the insurgents, the proponents of COIN strategy claim.

On the issue of what COIN seeks to achieve, American expert Maren Christensen, who studies post-conflict justice and rule of law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, says: “COIN is a strategy that requires work in a number of different areas simultaneously. Rule of law is a central element of its success or failure in Afghanistan, but it is not being systematically addressed in the same way as security objectives. The above should serve as a jumping off point for integrating rule of law promotion into this strategy, which already emphasizes the role of civilians. Current COIN doctrine defines civilians as the ‘center of gravity’ because their support of or opposition to insurgents can turn the tide of battle. In fact, their gravitational pull is much more profound, and should be recognized in a much broader way when we consider what it means to build state legitimacy.”

What is left unsaid about Operation Moshtarak

Besides enhancing drone attacks inside Pakistan to eliminate mostly Pakistani Taliban and a few Afghan Taliban, President Obama’s Afghanistan policy for the whole one year dwelled mostly on paper. During this period, insurgents gained further ground and began to exert their influence over most of the Afghan provinces. During this period, Kunduz was lost and Hekmatyar’s brigands drove the US Army away from Nuristan. Opium production, however, remained more or less the same.

Following President Obama’s West Point speech, more US troops arrived in Afghanistan and the plans were set in motion to launch a major military offensive in the Helmand River valley to seize control of some towns. This was the first salvo shot across the bow by Gen. McChrystal to launch his Vietnam-style COIN. American and other media were dragged in. They were provided with stories about the new objectives. Truth was freely mixed with fantasies to create a heady cocktail.

In a March 8 article, Fiction of Marjah as City Was US Information War, Gareth Porter pointed out that for weeks, the U. public followed the biggest offensive of the Afghanistan War against what it was told was a “city of 80,000 people” as well as the logistical hub of the Taliban in that part of Helmand. That idea was a central element in the overall impression built up in February that Marjah was a major strategic objective, more important than other district centers in Helmand. In addition, the US media reporting of the military success attained in Marjah, described it as a district itself. However, Marjah is not a city or even a real town, but either a few clusters of farmers’ homes or a large agricultural area covering much of the southern Helmand River Valley. “It’s not urban at all,” an official of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), who asked not to be identified, told Porter. He called Marjah a “rural community”. In addition, the district Marjah belongs to is Nad-e-Ali.

The 80, 000 population of Marjah was a complete concoction. What one ISAF official pointed out is that a population of tens of thousands associated with Marjah is spread across many villages and almost 200 square kilometers, or about 125 square miles. Porter asks: So how did the fiction that Marjah is a city of 80,000 people get started? He found out that the idea was passed on to the news media by the US Marines in southern Helmand. The earliest references in news stories to Marjah as a city with a large population have a common origin in a briefing given Feb. 2 by officials at Camp Leatherneck, the US Marine base there.

The Associated Press published an article the same day quoting “Marine commanders” as saying that they expected 400 to 1,000 insurgents to be “holed up” in the “southern Afghan town of 80,000 people.” That language evoked an image of house to house urban street fighting.

The same story said Marjah was “the biggest town under Taliban control” and called it the “linchpin of the militants’ logistical and opium-smuggling network”. It gave the figure of 125,000 for the population living in “the town and surrounding villages”. ABC news followed with a story the next day referring to the “city of Marjah” and claiming that the city and the surrounding area “are more heavily populated, urban and dense than other places the Marines have so far been able to clear and hold.” The rest of the news media fell into line with that image of the bustling, urbanized Marjah in subsequent stories, often using “town” and “city” interchangeably. Time magazine wrote about the “town of 80,000” Feb. 9, and the Washington Post did the same Feb. 11.

But despite such a build up, Operation Moshtarak did not make much of a dent among the Afghans in Kabul and elsewhere. In Foreign Policy magazine, Asma Nemati’s Kabul dispatch: Operation Moshtarak, on Feb. 22 pointed out: “Although the international media’s focus on the Marjah offensive in Helmand province is pervasive, some Afghans I’ve spoken with are wondering why Operation Moshtarak has been talked about so much - and those are the ones who have heard of the offensive at all. Some Afghans in Kabul, where I’m currently based, are clueless about what is going on in a province 400 miles from where they live. Some Afghans, like other observers, are also wondering what the strategic importance of Marjah is to Afghanistan overall, and criticize the operations. Some believe the hype around Operation Moshtarak is all part of an elaborate American publicity stunt to bolster support for the Obama administration’s 30,000-troop surge, announced in late December.”

She went on to say the majority of Afghans she had spoken with in Kabul are not too concerned about Operation Moshtarak. They could care less about what is happening in some district far from them; their main worries are their immediate security and making enough money to feed and clothe their families. But Afghans who were aware of Operation Moshtarak and follow it on the news were worried about the thousands of families that have been displaced because of the offensive. Migrating from place to place is not something new to Afghans; most have suffered from it for more than 30 years. Afghans get distressed when thinking of those families, asking, “How long will their relatives take care of them when those relatives themselves are barely able to provide for their own families?”, Asma Nemati noted.

Carrying the government-in-a-box

Because of these reality-gaps, it is difficult to fathom whether Operation Moshtarak would be a success. Moreover, the definition of success, according to the COIN theory, does not end with military success alone. It has four elements – clear, hold, build and transfer. Even if the US NATO and Afghan National Army (ANA) succeed in accomplishing the first three of the four tasks, proof of the pudding will lie with the final task – transfer. In the Vietnam war it was observed that the troops were successful almost always to achieve the first three tasks. But the reason that they had to carry out the same three tasks again and again on the same village, or the same cluster of villages, because the final task could not be accomplished.

In case of Operation Moshtarak, US, NATO and the ANA troops are lugging along with them what has been described by some scribes as “government-in-a-box”. What that means is that a number of administrators with varied experiences and skill are waiting behind the advancing troops to accomplish the first two tasks – clear and hold – in order to get injected into the held town. With the troops providing them cover, these administrators will begin governing the place with the hope that over a period of time they would get back the lost trust of the locals. In fact, the expectation is that the “good governance” imparted will encourage the locals to fight back the Taliban who are certain to keep on making forays with the intent of recapturing the town.

Even if all that works out according to the plan laid out by Gen. McChrystal and his staff, what remains wholly non-discussed and unresolved is what is going to happen in the post-transfer stage. President Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke brought this up at a recent seminar held in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In fact, Ambassador Holbrooke is the only one who has brought up this issue. At a March 16 2009, USAID talks, Holbrooke said his greatest worry was “the dependency trap” in which USAID builds schools, clinics, and roads in Afghanistan but they are not maintained once turned over to local control. “We can succeed only if the government of Afghanistan succeeds,” he said.

In case of transfer of power to the government-in-a-box, the final part of Operation Moshtarak, the same dependency factor looms large. As questioned by Jeff Schneider in his blog, Beware the Afghan Dependency Paradox, how will Marjah’s Afghan boxed-governance function, and to whom will it report? The Karzai government doesn’t possess the will or ability to expand its reach beyond the Kabul area. Moreover, it lacks the legitimacy and local trust to truly effect any change in the region - and this will taint any local governance that associates with the Karzai regime, Schneider says. If the national government (anathema in the Afghan context) is unable or unwilling to provide essential services to the populations of cleared areas, then those populations will turn to whatever group can provide a modicum of sustainable governance - and at the moment that is provided by the Taliban.

Schneider points out that if the US hopes to create local governments that can “fill the space” created between the Afghan people and the Taliban effectively, these governments must be considered legitimate and effective by the people they seek to govern. “If these local governments are tied to the Karzai regime, and the Karzai regime’s (very limited) legitimacy stems from US financial, logistical, and military support; will the US ever be able to leave Afghanistan without the central government folding, and local Afghan populations seeking governance from the Taliban shadow-governors?” Schneider questions.

The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.
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