McChrystal and the Afghan Trap

Times are desperate.  The commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal meets the US President for 25 minutes in a Scandinavian capital.  A potential scolding is on offer.  From what we gather, there was a ‘frank’ exchange of views.  The stymied coalition effort in Afghanistan is only accompanied by the incompetence that shows up daily in operations against a determined foe with seemingly boundless resolve. The history books are against the effort mounted by the Coalition.

General McChrystal was already in hot water over remarks made on the war in London last week.  He has resisted calls to move towards a strategy more broadly reliant on drone warfare and special operations forces.  It was a recipe, the blunt military man suggested, that would create ‘Chaos-istan.’  This adds to his recommendations in a leaked report authored by the general that made its way to the eager staff at the Washington Post last month.  That report of August 30 focused on the requirements of securing the population, nurturing good governance, building local forces and converting Coalition soldiers into more constructive agents of reform on the ground.  ‘Additional resources are required, but focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely.’  The nature of the battle had to be redefined.

His comments have not been appreciated, compelling individuals such like Bruce Ackerman at Yale University to express the view that McChrystal was being insubordinate.  ‘As commanding general, McChrystal has no business making such public pronouncements’ (Telegraph, 5 Oct).  Given the stuttering nature of NATO’s approaches to the conflict, they may at least have the consequence of addressing the problems posed by the conflict.  The time frame, for McChrystal, is a small one.  ‘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.’

Unfortunately, figures of political expertise and military doctrine specialise in re-invention.  Ideas churned out in this factor of formulae are not merely derivative, but repetitive.   We have the briefest of summaries about that Copenhagen meeting between Obama and his general from an unnamed British government spokesman.  ‘On next steps, they agreed that further “Afghanistization,” including accelerated training of Afghan army and police, needed to be at the centre of NATO’s counter-insurgency efforts.’

Such a clumsy term as Afghanistization is already problematic to begin with.  It would be an enterprise virtually impossible to achieve outside Kabul, and that would just be the start.  White House aides are struggling with a counter-insurgency campaign they barely understand, with an enemy wedged in a geopolitical network of regional interests and influences.  The results are half-measures that make the general bristle.  ‘You can’t hope to contain the fire by letting just half the building burn,’ he bluntly explained to Newsweek.

Old rule books keep being used when they should have been torn up years ago.  A parallel with the Vietnam War proves hard to resist.  Vietnamization was yet another term to be added to the lexicon of that war, an effort which yielded decidedly mixed results.  President Richard Nixon’s aim in 1969 was to shift the burden of defending South Vietnam to local forces while initiating the gradual and ultimate withdrawal of U.S. forces.  The slaughter could still continue within a framework of a re-defined conflict.  Infantry officer James H. Willbanks, who served in Vietnam, offers a damning assessment of the entire enterprise in his 2004 work Abandoning Vietnam.  For Willbanks, ‘the process of Vietnamization began too late, stifled South Vietnamese initiative and induced independence on U.S. support, and failed to address the fundamental weaknesses that led to the ultimate downfall of the RVNAF’.  The US general differed with that assessment at the time, with 58 percent of them in a 1974 survey agreeing that the Vietnamization program had been soundly conceived.

Eventually, the entire country was ‘Vietnamized’ by bomb and Kalashnikov, though not in the way that President Nixon and his cadres had hoped.  The North Vietnamese got the South, and Henry Kissinger got his somewhat diminished Nobel Peace Prize.  Historical scores were settled.  In the end, there was not only a conspicuous absence of peace, but a distinct lack of honour in the entire enterprise.  Are we doomed to repeat this sordid episode in Afghanistan?

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email:


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: