Column One: The Western way of war

General McChrsytal teaches us a truth of 21st century warfare in the West.

US General Stanley McChrystal has paid a huge price for his decision to give Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings free access to himself and his staff. But he performed a great service for the rest of us. US President Barack Obama fired McChrystal – his hand-picked choice to command NATO forces in Afghanistan – for the things that he and his aides told Hastings about the problematic nature of the US-led war effort in Afghanistan. But by acting as he did, McChrystal forced the rest of us to contend with the unpleasant truth not only about the US-led campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. He told us the unpleasant truth about the problematic nature of the Western way of war at the outset of the 21st century.
Hastings’ now famous article, “The Runaway General,” told the story of an argument. On the one hand, there are people who want to fight to win in Afghanistan. On the other hand, there are people who are not interested in fighting to win in Afghanistan. Obama – and McChrystal as his general – occupy the untenable middle ground. There they try to split the difference between the two irreconcilable camps. The inevitable end is preordained.
The US and its NATO allies first deployed in Afghanistan in October 2001 with the aim of toppling the Taliban regime and destroying Al-Qaida’s infrastructure in the country. They have remained in the country ever since with the goal of preventing the Taliban from returning to power.
After McChrystal took command a year ago, he conducted a review of the allied strategy.His revised strategy was based on counterinsurgency methods developed in Iraq. It called for a surge of 40,000 US forces in Afghanistan. It also recommended that NATO train 400,000 Afghan forces who, in the long term, would replace NATO forces once the Taliban was defeated.
McChrystal’s strategy was greeted with moans by leading members of Obama’s leftist base in the administration and outside it. Led by Vice President Joseph Biden, they offered a counter-strategy. As Biden has explained it, the alternative would involve deploying special forces units and airpower to target the Taliban as it becomes necessary, and otherwise disengage from the country as quickly as possible.
McChrystal and his allies dismissed Biden’s strategy as a recipe for disaster. Without a sufficient number of forces on the ground, the US would lose its ability to gather intelligence and so know what targets to attack. Recent reports that the US drone attacks in Pakistan are killing civilians rather than Al-Qaida and Taliban members indicate just how difficult it is to gather credible, actionable intelligence from a distance.
Presented with the two opposing strategies, Obama decided to split the difference. He ordered 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. He refused to increase the target number of Afghan security forces from its previous 230,000. And he announced that US forces would begin to withdraw from Afghanistan in July 2011.
Citing administration officials, last December the Washington Post explained Obama’s goal as follows, “The White House’s desired end state in Afghanistan… envisions more informal local security arrangements than in Iraq, a less-capable national government and a greater tolerance of insurgent violence.”
So too, an administration official stated, “The guidance they [the military] have is that we’re not doing everything, and we’re not doing it forever. … The hardest intellectual exercise will be settling on how much is enough.”
As J.E. Dyer noted at the time and reasserted this week at Commentary’s Contentions blog, “this was not executable guidance.” Or more to the point, as the Rolling Stone article illustrated, when executed, this guidance brings not victory nor even stability.
The White House’s guidance, as extrapolated from Obama’s chosen strategy for Afghanistan, endangers NATO forces. It empowers the Taliban. It demoralizes Afghans who would potentially stand with NATO against the Taliban. And in the end, it ensures that as NATO forces depart, the Taliban will return to power in a blaze of glory marching hand in hand with Al-Qaida.
In recent months Obama and his advisers have repeatedly attacked Afghan President Hamid Karzai for his problematic positions on the Taliban. But their criticism is unfair. They cannot expect loyalty from a man America is set to abandon in a year. It is up to Karzai and his fellow Afghans to cut deals with the Taliban while they still have something to bargain with.
By all accounts, until he was fired Wednesday, McChrystal had a better relationship with Karzai than anyone else in the US government. And this is not surprising. As White House and State Department officials signaled their willingness to cut deals with the Taliban, McChrystal and his forces have fought the Taliban.
Hastings devoted a great deal of attention to the deleterious impact US rules of engagement are having both on the war effort and on troop morale. Due to the administration’s aversion to civilian casualties, preventing civilian casualties has become a chief fighting aim for the US military. Yet since the Taliban war effort relies on civilian infrastructures and human shields, the strategic significance of preventing civilian casualties is that US forces’ ability to fight the Taliban is dramatically circumscribed.
For instance, Hastings reports on the death of Corporal Michael Ingram. Ingram was killed last month by an explosive device hidden in a house that had been used as a Taliban position.
Ingram’s commanders had repeatedly requested permission to destroy the house and had repeatedly been denied permission. Destroying the house, they were told, would have run counter to the aim of not upsetting civilians.
SINCE OBAMA is commander in chief, it is reasonable for criticism of this losing strategy to be directed towards him. But the truth is that for the better part of the last several decades, with occasional important exceptions, this sort of “half pregnant” strategy for war fighting has been the template for Western armies.
Today US forces in Afghanistan are fighting in a manner that is depressingly similar to that forced upon IDF forces in Lebanon in the 1990s. Like the US forces in Afghanistan today, during the 1990s, concerns about civilian casualties caused Israel’s political leadership to constrain IDF actions in southern Lebanon in a manner that effectively transformed soldiers into sitting ducks.
Israel’s finest were reduced to fighting from fortified positions and Hizbullah was given a free hand to intimidate Lebanese civilians, commandeer private homes and schools to use as firing positions and forward bases, and generally maintain the initiative in the fighting.
As he withdrew IDF forces from south Lebanon 10 years ago – like Biden today – then prime minister Ehud Barak claimed that Israel didn’t need boots on the ground to fight Hizbullah. If we needed to go in to fight, we would send in commando squads or fighter jets to do the job. Of course, as US drone operations in Pakistan again demonstrate, without a presence on the ground, you cannot have any certainty that you are attacking real targets.
The important story this week was not about a US general with abysmal judgment about the media. Rather, the story is that in Afghanistan, the US is repeating a sorry pattern of Western nations of not understanding – or perhaps not caring -- that if you are not willing to fight a war to victory, you will lose it.
The stakes in Afghanistan are clear. NATO forces can defeat the Taliban, or the Taliban can defeat them. To win, all the Taliban needs to do is survive. Once NATO is gone, like Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, the Taliban will be crowned the victors and from their failed state, they will be able to again attack the US and its allies.
There were only two instances in the last 10 years where Western forces fought to victory.
Israel defeated the Palestinians when, in the wake of Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, it retained security control over Judea and Samaria. The US defeated Al-Qaida and Muqtada el-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 by taking and retaining security control over Iraq. Both countries’ victories have been eroded in recent years as they have removed their forces from population centers and restricted them to more static positions. In both cases, the erosion of the Israeli and American achievements is due to waning political will to maintain military control.
It is hard to imagine that McChrystal’s decision to open his doors to Rolling Stone was a calculated move to blow the lid off of the mirage of strategic competence surrounding the “good war” in Afghanistan. This is not the first time that the US military has mistakenly given access to hostile Rolling Stone reporters. And of course, the US military – not unlike the IDF and the British military – has a long history of giving undeserved access to its media foes and paying the price for its mistakes.
But still, the truth remains that by effectively committing career suicide, McChrystal has posed a challenge to his country – and to the Western world as a whole. Now that you know the truth, what is it going to be? Are you willing to lose this war? Are you willing to see the Taliban restored to power in Afghanistan?
This week Haaretz reported on a new hit children’s song that is making waves throughout the Arab world. Called, “When we die as martyrs,” the song is sung by a children’s choir called “Birds of Paradise.” In a YouTube video of the song, children between the ages of two and six sing sweetly of their desire to die for Palestine and are shown triumphantly killing kippa-wearing Jews.
The Taliban’s perspective on the value of human life is similarly grotesque.
For years, citizens of free nations have willfully ignored or dismissed the significance of their enemies’ gruesome goals and ideology.They have claimed that what these people stand for is insignificant. At the end of the day, they say, the only reason there are wars is because the nations of the West provoke them by being strong. And so, when they have fought wars, they have fought them with strategies that can bring them nothing but defeat.
McChrystal’s final act as US commander in Afghanistan was to show us where this leads. But it also reminds us that there is another choice that can be made. The Western way of war needn’t remain the path of defeat. That, still, is for the people of the West to decide.