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Jun 15, 2009
The United States Shakes-Up Military Command in Afghanistan
By Hyder Akbar
During this pastweek, headlines about Afghanistan were dominated by the news that Gen. McKiernan, head of American forces in Afghanistan, had been sacked and relieved of his duties half way into the traditional two-year tour. The decision was announced in a press conference by Defense Secretary Robert Gates (Admiral Mike Mullen was also in attendance) who was unusually candid for a media event of this caliber, stating that it “probably”meant the end of McKiernan’s military career. This has been the first time since 1951 – when General Macarthur was removed by President Truman – that acivilian has fired a general in the middle of his tour. He has been replaced by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who has been serving in the Joints Chief of Staff and had a background in the Special Forces as well as extensive experience in Iraq.The appointment of a new general has come at a time that America has introduced a new strategy for Afghanistan, an increased level of troops and a new American ambassador. Along with other aspects of American strategy, this signifies obvious change for the United States in Afghanistan, and closer look at the conflict and the two generals reveals interesting insights into how the Americans might pursue counter-insurgency in Afghanistan.
One of the main differences between the two generals that have been brought up recently is their backgrounds in the American military. Gen. McKiernan comes from a military background that is considered more traditional, he has made his way up the army ranks as an infantry officer and talked of the need for more troops inAfghanistan.Gen. McChrystal comes from a Special Forces background, the elite part of the U.S. military that focuses on smaller numbers and a more efficient approach to wards conflict. For the United States,which has committed more troops to Afghanistan but still suffers from a lack of numbers because of the Iraq war and other commitments, the importance of relying on limited resources to deal with the insurgents in Afghanistan has taken precedence. They cannot afford to rely on more troops at this current juncture and the approach that General McKiernan had is difficult to implement because of internal pressures on the United States at home and the responsibilities the military has in other theaters.
In the context of the conflict that is currently going on in Afghanistan, a different approach by the United States could help on the military front. The Taliban insurgents have taken advantage of the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as a high maneuverability within the rugged and mountainous country topush the ir influence and wage a guerilla war against the coalition forces and Afghan government. To shut this down in a traditional military method would require a very high number of troops to be dispersed throughout the country –something that cannot be supplied by the Afghan National Army or NATO at this point. The only alternative is to rely on counter-insurgency methods that havemore of an emphasis on intelligence and preventive measures, going after the networks the insurgency has in the country and disrupting their infrastructure.It is these kinds of efforts that Gen. McChrystal and his Special Forces have been successful at; he is largely credited for leading the units that were able to find Al-Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Gen. McChrystal is also seen as a more assertive character with a personality that is able tobe more forceful when needed. In Afghanistan, where weak governance and corruption have played major roles in helping the insurgency, he is seen assomeone who will have a more stern approach to these aspects of the conflict. Since the Afghan government and NATO at times has been accused of being weak and ineffective against a ruthless and determined insurgency, Gen. McChrystal is seen as someone who can offer strong leadership to turn the tide.
President Obama,along with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and CENTCOM chief Gen. Petraus, have entrusted Gen. McChrystal with what has been deemed as the most important foreign policy priority of the Obama administration. It is perhaps a sign of where American focus is headed towards in Afghanistan. President Obama hasstated that his primary concern for Afghanistan is that the territory not be used to plan and launch attacks against America on its own soil. This would entail working on defeating the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and destroyed the Al-Qaeda network that has made serious in-roads within Pakistan. Given McChrystal’s background in counter-terrorism efforts, there is a possibility that his arrival will mean a more concentrated effort on the military aspects of defeating and destroying Taliban and Al-Qaeda networks in Afghanistan (and probably Pakistan).
But counter-terrorism is very different from counter-insurgency. What we are facingin Afghanistan right now is an insurgency that has become increasingly deadly and effective, making in-roads in large swathes of eastern and southern Afghanistan. The insurgency enjoys the luxury of a rugged and mountainous terrain with a population that is rural – ideal for guerilla-warfare against superior forces. They also have the added advantage of safesanctuaries outside of Afghanistan’sborders in highly volatile areas of Pakistan. Those that are fighting the insurgency – a side from small elements of foreign fighters – are Pashtuns who easily blend within the civilian population and have strong connections through tribal networks to the communities that they operate in. This means that the counter-terrorism efforts that brought many of Gen. McChrystal’s success in Iraq will not be easily replicated in Afghanistan: the former conflict was in terrain that was mostly flat deserts, in urban areas, and included foreign elements that could be easily separated from the local population.
The military efforts in Afghanistan will have to include elements that take into account the unique circumstances that exist in the country. This is where some of Gen. McChrystal’s tactics might have to be revamped for their efforts in Afghanistan.For instance, the harsh interrogation techniques and torture cases that caused controversy in Iraq could become an even more explosive issue in Afghanistan:they might be able to break up some networks but because of the links betweenthe communities and the Taliban, as well as the difficulty of credible intelligence in a feuding tribal society such as Afghanistan, they can also create more breathing room for the insurgency and increasing support from thecivilian population by alienating potential partners. Since most polls indicatethat the U.S. intervention and role in Afghanistan hasenjoyed more popular support from the local population (although this has been reduced in subsequent years) than it did in Iraq, a better approach to the conflict would be to win over the population and gain their trust.
None the less,counter-insurgency cannot be strictly a hearts-and-minds approach; there is a military component to the conflict that will be crucial to providing security and pushing back the insurgents. Gen. McChrystal has been entrusted by the United States to have the proper understanding about what needs to be done in Afghanistan. This is not an easy task; it will require a delicate balance between fighting hard-line elements, providing security for the civilian population, and improving relations with the local communities.
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