Afghan strategy needs review


PRESIDENT BARACK Obama’s dismissal of Gen Stanley McChrystal, commander of the 142,000 United States and Nato troops in Afghanistan, personalises a deep policy dilemma by highlighting the issue of civilian control over the military. Behind that fundamental principle there lies a continuing debate over US strategy in Afghanistan. Gen McChrystal’s counter-insurgency approach to the conflict is opposed by many leading US and European figures, who believe it is unachievable.

 The contempt for these opposing views displayed in his intimate profile by Rolling Stonemagazine provoked Mr Obama, but it seems inevitable that it will now spill over into a wider policy debate.

Gen McChrystal’s indiscretion is deeply ironic because Mr Obama’s decision last autumn to increase US troop levels in Afghanistan effectively endorsed the general’s counter-insurgency view of the war. This argued that the Taliban resistance would have to be confronted militarily until they would be forced to sue for peace. The strategy depends on combining aggressive forward engagement with a campaign to win civilian support through social and community programmes and trying to limit civilian casualties. It requires a major commitment of resources over a long time. The critics say these are not sufficiently available and that the crucial military campaign in southern Afghanistan is unsustainable.

The offending article reveals how committed Gen McChrystal’s team is to making the effort, but also how difficult it is to achieve. A key point of contention is over the timing and advisability of dealing with the Taliban. The counter-insurgency strategy argues against doing that until a decisive military victory has been won. But it has failed to materialise and the campaign has been put off. The US and British are effectively pursuing it alone among their Nato allies. Most of the European states involved believe a victory is unobtainable and that plans must be made for a gradual negotiated withdrawal.

The Rolling Stonearticle concludes: “After nine years of war, the Taliban simply remains too strongly entrenched for the US military to openly attack. The very people that counter-insurgency seeks to win over – the Afghan people – do not want us there. Our supposed ally, President Karzai, used his influence to delay the offensive, and the massive influx of aid championed by McChrystal is likely only to make things worse.”

Mr Obama’s appointment of Gen David Petraeus as McChrystal’s successor was made explicitly to emphasise a continuity of policy towards the existing strategy. The president realised how difficult it would be for Gen McChrystal to work with those he treated so dismissively. And he felt it important not to appear weak or indecisive in dealing with this question.

But the dismissal is likely to reopen the fundamental debate on the basic strategy closed off by last autumn’s decision to give Gen McChyrstal what he wanted. That is no bad thing. Mr Obama is already committed to a deadline of July next year to begin US withdrawal and handing over to Afghan forces. A more realistic perspective on the war should now open up.