Where next for Afghanistan after McChrystal’s dismissal

It is a professional maxim, and sound piece of personal wisdom, that the greatest gift one person can give another is clear expectations. In that respect, the leadership of the NATO coalition in Afghanistan has not been particularly generous of late: the past two weeks have seen surprisingly public outbreaks of discord at the highest levels of the British and American security establishments.

It is a professional maxim, and sound piece of personal wisdom, that the greatest gift one person can give another is clear expectations. In that respect, the leadership of the NATO coalition in Afghanistan has not been particularly generous of late: the past two weeks have seen surprisingly public outbreaks of discord at the highest levels of the British and American security establishments.

The most infamous example, of course, were the ill-advised remarks of Stanley McChrystal to Rolling Stone Magazine, which were scornful of senior Obama Administration officials and resulted in the general being relieved of command and replaced by Iraq hero General David Petraeus.

This was followed by a spat between British Defence Secretary Liam Fox and Prime Minister David Cameron; Fox announced publicly that British soldiers would be in Afghanistan for many years, while Cameron has promised to bring them home before the next election.

The same conflict is at the heart of both incidents: a dispute between the civilian and military leadership (Fox is a civilian, but he has assumed, not for the first time, a posture which he believes, perhaps correctly, accords with that of uniformed commanders) regarding the proper timetable for a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The highest elected officials have decreed that their forces will be on their way home before either President Obama or Prime Minister Cameron has a chance to be voted out in an election. Although it would be invidious to suggest that this is the only factor at work (particularly after Obama’s extensive Afghanistan review less than a year ago), it is easy to understand how a military commander, already frustrated by slow progress, could see political selfishness in the encroaching deadlines.

It seems likely that this played a part in McChrystal’s decision, witting or other, to demonstrate the importance of unity of effort (a theme of his) by dashing it utterly in an organ of record. Military commanders wanted more troops and time than they were given and could reasonably feel short-changed by political leaders, although Petraeus has done his best to paper this over by explaining that he agreed with and supports the timeline that will have the US begin to withdraw its forces by July 2011.

This may not be mere public diplomacy – the Obama Administration promised and delivered 30,000 additional troops and escalated civilian-led nation-building efforts in Afghanistan in exchange for a promise of reasonable progress in 18 months, a deal that would have been attractive to any commander inheriting the quagmire that country had become by 2009.

Indeed, McChrystal might have done well to recall the directionless, glacial campaign of the Bush years before he criticised this Administration’s civilian leadership. For now, it appears that operations are back on course, although Petraeus has engaged in a vigorous bout of expectations-lowering and referred darkly to the possibility of a longer campaign.

What is disturbing about this conflict of leadership is that it centres on the one resource of which the insurgents have more than the NATO coalition: time.  he ability to play for time and exhaust the will of an occupying force is, perhaps, the insurgent’s greatest advantage; guerilla campaigns can hang about for decades.

This does not mean that they are bound to win, merely that some incarnation will exist on the periphery of the state – Sendero Luminoso of Peru, for example, is still around, but as hunted remnant of its former self, and the shards of the hardened centre of Irish Republican separatism will manifest themselves in periodic outrages for years to come. Neither constitutes a threat to the monopoly of violence.

This, of course, is the crux of the issue – the Afghan state, after almost a decade of development, billions of dollars in aid, and the luxury of having the world’s finest armies defending it, has still not developed enough strength to repel the Taliban if NATO leaves. The path to throw stones at Afghan President Hamid Karzai for this state of affairs is well-worn (including by this writer in this periodical), and analyst-rhetoricians still must queue up when they finally traverse it.

At the risk of walking a bit of it again, it is worth noting that Karzai is rarely accused of overt corruption himself, merely of tolerating crippling graft and incompetence in others (The Economist of June 26-July 2 throws a particularly damning stone on this count).

The entire mission in Afghanistan is about correcting this. If the coalition pulls out before the Afghan army and police are up to keeping the Taliban out, no one knows better than the military (except, of course, for the Afghan people themselves) the horror-show that awaits, hence McChrystal’s frustration and Petraeus and Fox’s words about a long campaign.

At the same time, however, the civilian leadership is not necessarily in the wrong – NATO poured blood and treasure into Afghanistan for eight years without progress, and officials are not elected to repeat past mistakes.

It comes to this: if, by July 2011, Afghan police and military are making significant progress, Obama would be wise to make the withdrawal very slow and gradual, and prepare for a long-term NATO presence of some kind in the country. Cameron, it is to be hoped, would cooperate.

If, on the other hand, progress is still woeful in the development of the domestic apparatus of the monopoly of violence, US and British civilians could very rightly ask a pointed and potentially unanswerable question of the military commanders: if not now, when?

5 Responses to “Where next for Afghanistan after McChrystal’s dismissal”

  1. Left Foot Forward

    Where next for Afghanistan after McChrystal's dismissal: http://bit.ly/b1V3Eu

  2. Mr. Sensible

    Of course we don’t want our troups in Afghanistan any longer than we need, but what Cameron said about wanting them out before the election is just irresponsible.

  3. Frank Spring

    In which I prognosticate on the future of Afghanistan. http://tinyurl.com/2d4hsk8 #leftfootforward

  4. Marcus Roberts

    Good points Frank, particularly your last questions. That said, I’d like to raise the question of the relationship between Afghan security and Afghan development (in the broadest sense of the term). To what extent do we actually need the Afghan state to develop in the latter sense as opposed to just the former? Simply put, if there was an Afgan state replete with corruption, social and economic failure and political turbulance but with a strong Afghan security force could/would/should NATO just call it a day then and withdraw?

  5. Patrick

    You bet!

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