The choosing of McChrystal provides some insight as to what the coming months will look like in Afghanistan. Like in Iraq, expect a major effort to win over tribes and warlords in Afghanistan by providing them with funding and security against the hated Taliban militants, and by establishing direct relationships with the U.S. military. Soldiers will likely be dispersed in outposts in the communities, providing the locals with confidence and personal experience that will debunk enemy propaganda about the evil of America’s soldiers. The subsequent intelligence flow will allow for targeted raids that will force the Taliban and their allies to rely even more heavily upon Pakistan for survival, and that’s where things become more interesting.
As an expert in head hunting, it is clear that the Obama administration wants McChrystal to take out the enemy leadership, and that leadership is in Pakistan. McChrystal’s skills in both counterinsurgency and tracking down wanted targets can only be fully utilized if the Obama administration is planning to expand covert operations on Pakistani territory and his appointment is a clear indication that this is what the administration plans to do.
A few obstacles lie ahead as the Obama administration tries to apply the Iraq template to Afghanistan, however. First, the effort to win over the tribes will be far more difficult in Pakistan. There is no U.S. military force to develop trust and collaboration with, and distrust of the Pakistani government due to political differences and a lack of faith will be hard to overcome. In addition, many of the Taliban and Taliban-like insurgents have long personal ties with the Pakistani tribes. This can only be broken through a combination of a complete collapse of support from the community for the Taliban — which may be in the process of happening — and, more importantly, a consistent Pakistani military presence that can protect and serve the population. It is questionable whether the Pakistani military has the forces and skills to launch such a counterinsurgency campaign absent an indigenous uprising in the area. This will require a major overhaul of the Pakistani military’s method of operations and thinking.
McChrystal’s skills in gaining and acting on intelligence will only be useful if such intelligence exists. He will certainly have great success in Afghanistan, but with the enemy mostly operating from Pakistan, this will require a three-step process with much room for error. First, the intelligence will have to be gained either through U.S. covert operations or, more likely, citizens providing the Pakistani military with tips. Second, that intelligence will have to be passed to the U.S. or appropriate military personnel before the targets flee and before internal traitors leak the information to the enemy. Finally, the information has to be acted on quickly with precision and stealth. The key problem for McChrystal here is that he’s in charge of U.S. forces, not Pakistani forces.
Despite the obstacles, McChystal’s appointment is a major sign for optimism. President Obama is not so narrow-mindedly partisan that he can’t see Bush’s success in Iraq and use it for the good of the country — and, not to mention, his future reelection campaign. The battlefield in Afghanistan will change for the better, but U.S. forces will have to stay indefinitely so long as Pakistan remains a harbor for the enemy to operate. However, if it is true that President Obama sees McChrystal’s skill as necessary to take the fight to Pakistan, then Obama may have found his own “General Petraeus” to deliver him a victory in Afghanistan. And if that happens, President Bush will deserve credit for the formula and President Obama will deserve credit for using it.