General Stanley McChrystal’s exit shocked almost everybody, particularly those within the Pentagon and the mighty defence establishment who still advocate the military surge. Yet, his departure was not unexpected. The Rolling Stone magazine interview only precipitated the ousting of a person who faced severe challenges to his position following the setbacks to the Marja offensive.
McChrystal’s announcement of the delay until September 2010, of the military operation in Kandahar was a serious blow to the General’s earlier chest-thumping statements. McChrystal and his staff had touted the Kandahar operation as the “pivotal campaign of the war”.
According to the IPS, “Equally damaging to the credibility of McChrystal’s strategy was the Washington Post report, documenting in-depth the failure of February 2010 offensive in Marja.” The Marja Operation had made abundantly clear that that the US-led coalition forces lacked the Afghan populations support in what is known as the Taliban heartland.
“When you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them,” said McChrystal to a NATO conference in London just days before his sacking, underlining the difficulties his mission could face in Kandahar.
The Washington Post story had spoken of “US official’s complaints” that “the support from Kandaharis that the United States was counting on Karzai to deliver has not materialised.” This was the first detailed evidence of the systematic non-cooperation of the population of the district-sized area called Marja with US troops. In one instance, female US Marines tried to get Afghan women to come to a meeting but not a single woman showed up. And despite a NATO offer to hire as many as 10,000 residents for labour projects on irrigation projects, only about 1,200 signed up.
This also fuelled frustration within the McChrystal camp and the swipes they took at Obama, Joe Biden and others (as reported in the Rolling Stones magazine) reflect the disconnection between Kabul and Washington; where vice president Joe Biden advocates a defined time-line for disengagement from Afghanistan.
This disconnect was also evident from President Karzai’s support for McChystal. There are strong lobbies associated with the Pentagon interested in the continuation of the status quo – if not a further surge. At the moment as many as 150,000 defence contractors are serving the nearly 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan. A number of members of the Karzai administration are working as sub-contractors, largely involved in cargo supplies for the coalition troops.
What does this mean for the US Afghan strategy?
Firstly, although President Obama insists the Afghan strategy will remain intact, he is unmistakably anxious for a phased withdrawal. Gen David Petraeus told CNN (June 24, 2010) that he supports President Barack Obama’s July 2011 deadline to start withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan.
Secondly, to facilitate the gradual pullout, Obama and aides will have to mix-and-match the desire for an honourable exit and the compulsion of keeping the post-Taliban system intact, thereby denying Taliban and Al Qaeda any chance to overrun Kabul.
Thirdly, the US strategy will now most probably be a combination of Biden’s “stripped-down counterterrorism strategy – including a hard deadline for American withdrawal – and an accelerated effort by Karzai’s government to reconcile with the leaders of the Taliban insurgency”, as reported by the New York Times (June 24, 2010).
Fourth, Pakistan will weigh heavily on the US strategy. The Obama administration shall have to bypass those hardliners within the establishment, and many Republicans, who want to tie any future aid cooperation to an all-out offensive in North Waziristan by Pakistan.
Fifth, any US strategy shall have to take into account Pakistan’s politico-strategic long-term interests as well its quest for energy from countries such as Iran. Expecting Pakistan to jeopardize its long-term national interest by antagonizing the entire tribal region and giving up on gas import plans from Iran for the sake of American interests is loaded with selfishness and contradiction.
In this context, it is imperative for Pakistan to be on the defensive. While resolving to stay the course against terrorism, Pakistan must press for its legitimate objectives such as import of energy from other countries.
Sixth, since General David Petraeus enjoys good personal rapport with Pakistan’s army high command, the US civilian authorities would do good to their stated and covert objectives if they let the new commander in Afghanistan build trust with his Pakistani counterparts.
Continued suspicions of Pakistan’s intentions will only keep muddying waters and will not help its cause in Afghanistan.
More importantly, blaming others for divisions within is not the recipe for success in Afghanistan. Obama and Petraeus must first synergize their strategies before exhorting others for cooperation.