The leak of the "initial assessment" of the war in Afghanistan by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in the war, with its blunt warning that "[f]ailure to provide adequate resources" is likely to result in "mission failure", was part of an obvious effort to force the hand of a reluctant President Barack Obama to agree to a significant increase in U.S. troops.
The version of the classified McChrystal assessment published on the Washington Post website Monday has many redactions, indicating that it had been prepared especially for the purpose of leaking it the press.
What may be even more important about McChrystal’s assessment, however, is that it presents a highly discouraging picture of the situation in Afghanistan – and that the Integrated Civilian-Military Campaign Plan for Afghanistan to which he had agreed just three weeks earlier was even more pessimistic than his "initial assessment".
The integrated campaign plan, signed by McChrystal and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry on Aug. 10, said that popular rejection of the Afghan government in the Pashtun region of the country is already so pronounced that "key groups" are supporting the Taliban as the only available alternative to a government they regard as abusive.
The integrated campaign plan is marked "Sensitive but Unclassified", and has not been released to the public, but a copy has been obtained by IPS.
Both documents acknowledge fundamental socio-political realities that raise serious questions about the feasibility of the counterinsurgency programme that McChrystal outlines in his assessment, but McChrystal’s assessment altered or softened some central conclusions of the integrated campaign plan.
The most important difference between the two documents is their conclusion about how much popular support the insurgents have already gained. The McChrystal assessment suggests that the insurgents have been unable to obtain uncoerced popular support.
"Major insurgent groups use violence, coercion and intimidation against civilians to control the population," the assessment says. It concludes that "popular enthusiasm" for the Taliban and other insurgent groups "appears limited, as does their ability to spread beyond the Pashtun areas".
Pashtuns are by far the largest ethnic group in the country, with 40 to 45 percent of the population, and predominate across most of Afghanistan’s territory, from the far west across the entire south to the east.
While denying popular support for the insurgency, however, McChrystal admits that some factors, such as "a natural aversion to foreign intervention" and tribal and ethnic identities that are reinforced by "historical grievances" have resulted in "elements of the population tolerating the insurgency and calling to push out foreigners".
The integrated campaign plan goes further, suggesting that the Taliban have gotten support because they are seen as the only feasible alternative to an abusive government. It notes that most Afghans reject the "Taliban ideology", but concludes, "Key groups have become nostalgic for the security and justice Taliban rule provided."
The two documents use different terms to describe the political failure of the Afghan government and its consequences. The McChrystal assessment refers to a popular "crisis of confidence" in the government. But the integrated campaign plan calls it a "crisis of legitimacy" and says the insurgents have "derived some legitimacy by appealing to ideological affinities and fears of ‘foreign occupation’ as well as in quick provision of local justice."
The two documents also differ on what progress can be expected in carrying out an ambitious agenda for change outlined in the integrated campaign plan.
McChrystal’s assessment simply presents the broad strategy and the objectives that must be achieved in regard to providing security, increasing Afghan government security forces and reform of governance. It does not consider the risks or likelihood of failure in regard to any these objective.
The integrated campaign plan, however, does consider risks and the possibility of failure. It makes the identification of corrupt local officials and punishing them or changing their behaviour a priority objective, for example.
But it also warns that the Afghan government and its warlord allies in the provinces, who have no real interest in changing the status quo, may well be able to frustrate such efforts at reform. The plan even suggests Karzai might "replace several effective government officials with ineffective or corrupt individuals".
It raises the possibility that "dashed hopes" about reducing Afghan government corruption could create a "backlash" against the ISAF.
Another risk anticipated by the plan is that the Afghan elections of Aug. 20 would be "widely viewed as unfair" and would lead to "a political crisis and/or increased perception of GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] illegitimacy". Reporting during the month since the election suggests that such an expectation was quite realistic.
Although it clearly pulls its punches on some key issues, the McChrystal assessment nevertheless contains some remarkably candid language for an official document – let alone one clearly intended to justify the escalation of the war.
McChrystal acknowledges the problem of warlords – referring to them as "local and regional power brokers" – who have autonomy from the government and in some cases hold positions in the Afghan National Security Forces, particularly the Afghan National Police.
He also refers to the fact that ISAF has "relationships" with the warlords, these "individuals", meaning that foreign military contingents have many contracts with them to provide security services and rely heavily on them for intelligence.
Those relationships, McChyrstal observes, "can be problematic". For one thing, he observes, the Afghan public perceives the ISAF as "complicit" in official Afghan abuses of power.
This degree of realism about the fundamental socio-political conditions bearing on the success or failure of a counterinsurgency war found in both the McChrystal assessment and the integrated campaign plan is highly unusual, if not unparalleled, in U.S. military policymaking. In this case, it apparently helped precipitate a crisis in U.S. Afghan policy.
Along with the blatantly fraudulent election run by President Hamid Karzai’s regime and the sharp downturn in domestic U.S. political support for the war in Afghanistan, the fundamental obstacles to success discussed candidly in the two documents were part of the context of Obama’s scepticism about McChrystal’s troop request.
Thus they contributed to his decision to engage in what one senior administration official has called "a very, very serious review of all options", according to the report by Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung in the Washington Post Monday.
GARETH PORTER is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.