By William R. Polk
On June 24, the International Herald Tribune published an editorial from its parent, The New York Times, entitled “Obama’s Decision.” Both the attribution – printing in the two newspapers which ensures that the editorial will reach both directly and through subsidiary reprinting almost every “decision maker” in the world – and the date – just before the appointment of David Petraeus to succeed Stanley McChrystal – are significant. They could have suggested a momentary lull in which basic questions on the Afghan war might have been reconsidered.
That did not happen. The President made clear his belief that the strategy of the war was sound and his commitment to continue it even if the general responsible for it had to be changed.
The editorial sounded a different note arising from the events surrounding the fall of General McChrystal: Mr. Obama, said The Times, “must order all of his top advisers to stop their sniping and maneuvering” and come up with a coherent political and military plan for driving back the Taliban and building a minimally effective Afghan government.”
In short, Mr. Obama must get his team together and evolve a plan.
Unfortunately, the task he faces is not that simple.
First, consider the “team.” It has two major components, the military officers whom McChrystal gathered in Kabul. As they made clear in the Rolling Stone interview, they think of themselves as “Team America” and hold in contempt everyone else. Those who don’t fully subscribe to their approach to the war are unpatriotic, stupid or cowardly. Those officers are not alone. Agreeing with them is apparently now a large part of the professional military establishment. They are the junior officers whom David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal have selected, promoted and with whom they take their stand..
The other “component” is not a group but many groups with different agendas and constituencies. The most crucial for my purposes here are the advisers to the President; they were dismissed out of hand as “the wimps in the White House.” Most, but not all, were civilians. Other senior military officers, now retired, who are not part of “Team America” and its adherents were also disparaged. Famously, General Jim Jones, the director of the National Security Council staff, was called a “clown.”
These were the comments that forced Mr. Obama’s hand and were what the press latched upon to explain the events. But many missed the point that McChrystal had just a few days before his dismissal written a devastating report on his mission. Confidential copies of it were obtained by the London newspaper, The Independent on Sunday, which published it today, but of course the President had seen it earlier. Essentially, its message boiled down to failure.
McChrystal pointed out that he faced a “resilient and growing insurgency,” with too few troops and expected no progress in the coming six months. Despite expenditures of at least $7 billion a month, his politico-military strategy wasn’t working. Within weeks of the “victory” over the Taliban in the agricultural district of Marja, the Taliban were back and the box full of government he had announced proved to be nearly empty. As the expression went in the days of the Vietnam war, whatever happened during the day, the guerrillas “owned the night.” As he described it, Marja was the “bleeding ulcer” of the American campaign.
Behind McChrystal’s words, the figures were even more devastating: Marja, despite the descriptions in the press is not a town, much less a city; it is a hundred or so square miles of farm land with dispersed hamlets in which about 35,000 people live and work. Into that small and lightly populated area, McChrystal poured some 15,000 troops, and they failed to secure it.
To appreciate what those figures mean, consider them in context of Petraeus’s counterinsurgency theory, on which McChrystal was basing his strategy. As he had explained it, Marja should be taken, secured and held. Then an administration – McChrystal’s “government in a box” — should be imposed upon it. Despite all the hoopla about the brilliant new strategy, it was hardly new. In fact it was a replay of the strategy the French General Lyautey called the tache d’huile (the oil spot) and applied in Indochina over a century ago. We also tried it in Vietnam, renaming it the “ink spot.” The hope was that the “spot,” once fixed on the Marja, would smudge into adjoining areas and so eventually spread across the country. Clear and simple, but unfortunately, like so much in counterinsurgency theory, it never seemed to work.
Petraeus’s counterinsurgency theory also illuminated how to create the “spot.” What was required was a commitment of forces in proportion to native population size. Various numbers have been put forth but a common number is about one soldier for each 50 inhabitants. Marja was the area chosen for the “spot.” The people living there, after all, were farmers, wedded to the land, and so should be more tractable than the wild warriors along the tribal frontier. Moreover, it was the place where the first significant American aid program, the Helmand Valley Authority, had been undertaken in the late 1950s. So, if an area were to be favorable to Americans, it ought to be Marja. But, to take no chances, General McChrystal decided to employ overwhelming force. So, what is particularly stunning about the failure in Marja is that the force applied was not the counterinsurgency model of 1 soldier for each 50 inhabitants but nearly 1 soldier for each 2 inhabitants.
If these numbers were projected to the planned offensive in the much larger city of Kandahar, which has a population of nearly 500,000, they become impossibly large. Such an attack would require at least four times as many US and NATO as in Marja. That is virtually the entire fighting force and what little control over Marja and most other areas, perhaps even the capital, Kabul, that now exists would have to be given up or else large numbers of additional American troops would have to be engaged. Moreover, in response to such an attack, it would be possible for the insurgents also to redeploy so the numbers would again increase.
The more fundamental question, which needs to be addressed, is why didn’t this relatively massive introduction of troops with awesome and overwhelming fire power succeed. Just a few days before he was fired, as I have mentioned, General McChrystal posed, but could not answer, that question. I hope President Obama is also pondering it.
For those who read history, the answer is evident. But, as I have quoted in my book Understanding Iraq, the great German philosopher, Georg Willhelm Friedrich Hegel, despaired that “Peoples and governments never have learned anything from history or acted on principles deduced from it” and, therefore, as the American philosopher George Santayana warned us, not having learned from history, we are doomed to repeat it. Indeed, it seems that each generation of Americans has to start all over again to find the answers. Who among our leaders and certainly among college students now really remembers Vietnam? So, consider these simple facts:
The first fact, whether we like it or not, is that nearly everyone in the world has a deep aversion to foreigners on his land. As far as we know, this feeling goes back to the very beginning of our species because we are territorial animals. Dedication to the protection of homeland permeates history. And the sentiment has never died out. Today we call it nationalism. Nationalism in various guises is the most powerful political idea of our times. Protecting land, culture, religion and people from foreigners is the central issue in insurgency. The former head of the Pakistani intelligence service, who has had unparallelled experience with the Taliban over many years, advised us that we should open our eyes to seeing the Afghan insurgents as they see themselves: “They are freedom fighters fighting for their country and fighting for their faith.” We agreed when they were fighting the Russians; now, when many of the same people are fighting us, we see them only as terrorists. That label does not help us understand why they are fighting. Read more of this post