The decision by the Obama administration to fire General McKiernan as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and replace him with General Stanley McChrystal has been met with widespread praise, with former vice president and current chief Obama critic Dick Cheney describing McChrystal as “an absolutely outstanding officer.” With all the focus on whether McChrystal can decisively change the situation in Afghanistan, commentators are missing what McChrystal’s selection means.
Think about President Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan. He’s put in place a reputable new commander in preparation for a broad counterinsurgency campaign. He’s dispatching over 20,000 additional soldiers to help bring security to the country and is putting pressure on the country’s neighbors to crack down on those trying to destabilize Afghanistan and kill our soldiers.
McChrystal’s selection is an unstated admission that the surge in Iraq, which President Obama opposed as a senator and presidential candidate, worked; now he intends to use that formula to win in Afghanistan. President Obama has also kept General Petraeus as head of CENTCOM and General Odierno as head of Multi-National Force Iraq — these two were the architects of the surge — not to mention President Bush’s replacement of Don Rumsfeld as defense secretary, Bob Gates. The Obama plan for Afghanistan is the logical progression of the war-fighting strategy President Bush bravely embraced in 2006 for Iraq under immense political pressure few elected officials could withstand.
McChrystal, who served for five years as the head of the Joint Special Operations Command that kindly gave Zarqawi his wish of martyrdom, is undoubtedly a master of 21st-century warfare. His success in that capacity shows he knows how to gain intelligence and manage the mind-boggling array of government agencies and red tape so as to allow for quick and efficient strikes based on the latest information.
There is some concern that McChrystal’s ability to target leadership indicates the new strategy will focus more on killing important individuals, rather than a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. Based on General Petraeus’ position as head of CENTCOM, Gates’ specifically pointing out McChrystal’s “unique skill set in counterinsurgency,” and a simple look at Afghanistan, it is doubtful that that mistake will be made. Furthermore, he has demonstrated an understanding of what today’s wars require. As Time magazine noted, he ordered soldiers returning to Iraq to be stationed in their original neighborhoods of deployment, allowing for them to revive and maintain the personal relationships and local knowledge required for successful counterinsurgency operations.
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.