Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal confronts the specter of a collapse of U.S. political support for the war in Afghanistan in coming months comparable to the one that occurred in the Iraq War in late 2006.
On Thursday, McChrystal’s message that his strategy will weaken the Taliban in its heartland took its worst beating thus far, when he admitted that the planned offensive in Kandahar City and surrounding districts is being delayed until September at the earliest, because it does not have the support of the Kandahar population and leadership.
Equally damaging to the credibility of McChrystal’s strategy was the Washington Post report published Thursday documenting in depth the failure of February’s offensive in Marja.
The basic theme underlined in both stories – that the Afghan population in the Taliban heartland is not cooperating with U.S. and NATO forces – is likely to be repeated over and over again in media coverage in the coming months.
The Kandahar operation, which McChrystal’s staff has touted as the pivotal campaign of the war, had previously been announced as beginning in June. But it is now clear that McChrystal has understood for weeks that the most basic premise of the operation turned out to be false.
“When you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them,” said McChrystal, who was in Brussels for a NATO conference.
He didn’t have to spell out the obvious implication: the people of Kandahar don’t want the protection of foreign troops.
The Washington Post story on McChrystal’s announcement reported “U.S. officials” had complained that “the support from Kandaharis that the United States was counting on [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai to deliver has not materialised.”
That explanation hardly makes McChrystal’s war plan more credible, because Karzai has made no secret of his preference for a negotiated settlement rather than continued efforts to weaken the Taliban by occupying key Taliban strongholds.
The report in the Post, written by National Editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran, provided the first detailed evidence of the systematic non-cooperation of the population of the district-sized area called Marja with U.S. troops.
Chandrasekaran reported that female U.S. Marines tried to get Afghan women to come to a meeting last week, but that not a single woman showed up. And despite a NATO offer to hire as many as 10,000 residents for labor projects on irrigation projects, only about 1,200 have signed up.
The U.S. officials in Marja are trying to convince local residents, in effect, that they should trust the foreign troops to protect them from the Taliban, but the Taliban are still able to make credible threats to punish those who collaborate with occupation forces.
About a dozen people have been killed for such collaboration already, and many more have been warned to stop, according to Chandrasekaran’s report.
“You can’t get beyond security when you talk to people,” a civilian official working on development told the Post editor. “They don’t want to entertain discussions about projects.”
Chandrasekaran also reported that representatives of rural development and education projects came to Marja initially and then retreated to the province centre. They appear to be as convinced as the population that the Taliban will continue to be a powerful presence in the region.
That was not supposed to happen when the U.S.-NATO declared victory in Marja three months ago. To ensure that no Taliban would be able to operate in the area, McChrystal had deployed nearly 15,000 U.S., British and Afghan troops to control Marja’s population.
Despite news media references before and during the offensive to Marja as a “city of 80,000”, it was an agricultural area whose population of about 35,000 was spread over some 120 square kilometers, based on the fewer than 50 dwellings shown on the Google Earth map of a 1.2 kilometer segment of the area.
That means the 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops provide a ratio of one occupying soldier for every two members of the population. Counterinsurgency doctrine normally calls for one soldier for every 50 people in the target area.
The fact that the U.S.-NATO forces could not clear the Taliban from Marja despite such an unusually heavy concentration of troops is devastating evidence that the McChrystal strategy has failed.
Throughout 2009, media coverage of the war was focused on plans for a new offensive strategy that promised to turn the war around. But Thursday’s double dose of bad news suggests a cascade of news stories to come that will reinforce the conclusion that the war is futile.
That in turn could lead to what might be an “Iraq 2006 moment” – the swift unraveling of political support for the war on the part of the elected and unelected political elite, as occurred in the Iraq War in the second half of 2006. The collapse of elite political support for the Iraq War followed months of coverage of sectarian violence showing the U.S. military had lost control of the war.
McChrystal is still hoping, however, to be given much more time to change the attitudes of the population in Helmand and Kandahar.
Chandrasekaran quoted “a senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan” – the term often used for McChrystal himself – as saying, “We’re on an Afghan timetable, and the Afghan timetable is not the American timetable.” The official added, “And that is the crux of the problem.”
McChrystal and his boss, CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus, may now be counting on pressure from the Republican Party to force President Barack Obama to reverse his present position that withdrawal of U.S. troops will begin next year.
That was the view expressed Thursday by retired Army lieutenant colonel and former Petraeus aide John Nagl, a leading specialist on counterinsurgency who is now president of the Centre for a New American Security.
After the organization’s annual conference, Nagle told me that Obama will have to shift policy next year to give more time to McChrystal, because he would otherwise be too vulnerable to Republican attacks on his Afghanistan policy going into the 2012 election campaign.
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.