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McChrystal faces ‘Iraq’ moment
By Gareth Porter

WASHINGTON – General Stanley McChrystal confronts the specter of a collapse of United States political support for the war in Afghanistan in coming months comparable to the one that occurred in the Iraq War in late 2006.

On Thursday, McChrystal’s message that his strategy will weaken the Taliban in its heartland took its worst beating thus far, when he admitted that the planned offensive in Kandahar city and surrounding districts is being delayed until September at the earliest, because it does not have the support of the Kandahar population or its leadership.

Equally damaging to the credibility of McChrystal’s strategy was the Washington Post report published on Thursday documenting in depth the failure of February’s offensive in Marjah.

The basic theme underlined in both stories – that the Afghan population in the Taliban heartland is not cooperating with US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces – is likely to be repeated over and over again in media coverage in the coming months.

The Kandahar operation, which McChrystal’s staff has touted as the pivotal campaign of the war, had previously been announced as beginning in June. But it is now clear that McChrystal has understood for weeks that the most basic premise of the operation turned out to be false.

“When you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them,” said McChrystal, who was in London for a NATO conference. He didn’t have to spell out the obvious implication: the people of Kandahar don’t want the protection of foreign troops.

The Washington Post story on McChrystal’s announcement reported “US officials” had complained that “the support from Kandaharis that the United States was counting on [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai to deliver has not materialized”.

That explanation hardly makes McChrystal’s war plan more credible, because Karzai has made no secret of his preference for a negotiated settlement rather than continued efforts to weaken the Taliban by occupying key Taliban strongholds.

The report in the Post, written by National Editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran, provided the first detailed evidence of the systematic non-cooperation of the population of the district-sized area called Marjah with US troops.

Chandrasekaran reported that female US Marines tried to get Afghan women to come to a meeting last week, but that not a single woman showed up. And despite a NATO offer to hire as many as 10,000 residents for labor projects on irrigation projects, only about 1,200 have signed up.

The US officials in Marjah are trying to convince local residents, in effect, that they should trust the foreign troops to protect them from the Taliban, but the Taliban are still able to threaten to punish those who collaborate with occupation forces.

About a dozen people have been killed for such collaboration already, and many more have been warned to stop, according to Chandrasekaran’s report.

“You can’t get beyond security when you talk to people,” a civilian official working on development told the Post editor. “They don’t want to entertain discussions about projects.”

Chandrasekaran also reported that representatives of rural development and education projects came to Marjah initially and then retreated to the province’s center. They appear to be as convinced as the population that the Taliban will continue to be a powerful presence in the region.

That was not supposed to happen when US-NATO forces declared victory in Marjah three months ago. To ensure that no Taliban would be able to operate in the area, McChrystal had deployed nearly 15,000 US, British and Afghan troops to control Marjah’s population.

Despite news media before and during the offensive referring to Marjah as a “city of 80,000”, it was an agricultural area whose population of about 35,000 was spread over some 120 square kilometers, based on the fewer than 50 dwellings shown on the Google Earth map of a 1.2 kilometer segment of the area.

That means the 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops provide a ratio of one occupying soldier for every two members of the population. Counter-insurgency doctrine normally calls for one soldier for every 50 people in the target area.

The fact that the US-NATO forces could not clear the Taliban from Marjah despite such an unusually heavy concentration of troops is devastating evidence that the McChrystal strategy has failed.

Throughout 2009, media coverage of the war was focused on plans for a new offensive strategy that promised to turn the war around. But Thursday’s double dose of bad news suggests a cascade of media reports to come that will reinforce the conclusion that the war is futile.

That in turn could lead to what might be an “Iraq 2006 moment” – the swift unraveling of political support for the war on the part of the elected and unelected political elite, as occurred in the Iraq War in the second half of 2006. The collapse of elite political support for the Iraq War followed months of coverage of sectarian violence showing the US military had lost control of the war.

McChrystal is still hoping, however, to be given much more time to change the attitudes of the population in Helmand and Kandahar.

Chandrasekaran quoted “a senior US military official in Afghanistan” – the term often used for McChrystal himself – as saying, “We’re on an Afghan timetable, and the Afghan timetable is not the American timetable.” The official added, “And that is the crux of the problem.”

McChrystal and his boss, Central Command chief General David Petraeus, may now be counting on pressure from the Republican Party to force President Barack Obama to reverse his present position that the withdrawal of US troops will begin next year.

That was the view expressed on Thursday by retired army lieutenant colonel and former Petraeus aide John Nagl, a leading specialist on counter-insurgency who is now president of the Center for a New American Security.

After the organization’s annual conference, Nagle told Inter Press Service that Obama will have to shift policy next year to give more time to McChrystal, because he would otherwise be too vulnerable to Republican attacks on his Afghanistan policy going into the 2012 election campaign.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.

(Inter Press Service)

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And in Washington a few days ago, General Petraeus testified at the Senate Armed Services Committee. Here’s a little bit of what he had to say.


SEN. ROGER WICKER (R-MS): How likely is it, General, that secret negotiations could have been held with the Taliban outside the purview of American and NATO officials?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, COMMANDER, US CENTRAL COMMAND: I think it’s very unlikely, in part because we’re told about what goes on. And we also have good insights, as they say in the intelligence community.

SEN. KAY KAGAN (D-NC): Does Afghanistan’s—this newfound wealth in any way alter the coalition’s counterinsurgency approach, government support plan, development plan?

PETRAEUS: Potentially it could be an incredible boon to Afghanistan. It could enable them to pay for their own governmental officials, forces, programs, and so forth. Even despite the great mineral wealth that’s found, that is not going to be exploited in substantial form, we wouldn’t think, for some years.


JAY: Now joining us to talk about US policy in Afghanistan is Gareth Porter. He’s an investigative journalist, he’s a historian, and he often appears on The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, Gareth.


JAY: So one of the things that Petraeus and Gen. McChrystal have been saying is Kandahar’s going to work, but it’s going to take longer than we thought it would. What do you make of what’s happening to their policy here?

PORTER: Well, you’ve got, both in Kandahar and going back to Marja (the one that was supposed to really kick off the McChrystal strategy for, basically, sending the Taliban reeling backwards), both of these fronts of this war strategy have suffered very serious, I would say, defeats. I would use the word defeat.

JAY: So Marja is a defeat.

PORTER: Marja has been a defeat in the following sense. To begin with, this was a place that they wanted to really nail down, they were determined to really get complete control of.

JAY: This was going to be the model for, the pattern of how they were going to retake Afghanistan.

PORTER: Exactly. It was supposed to be the model. And, therefore, they put so many troops in there that they were confident that they could get complete control of it and basically kick the Taliban out. They put 7,500 American, British troops into this battle in Marja, plus—they said, at least—around 7,000 Afghan troops. Now, whether there were really 7,000 Afghan troops is not at all clear. But let’s just say that there were 7,500 troops, just as the basic number that they put into that battle to get control. This turns out to be not a city of 80,000, which it was touted to be by the US military, by the US Marines, but rather a 120 km2 rural area, farming area, with about 35,000 people.

JAY: And to a large extent farming poppies.

PORTER: Farming poppies to a great extent, yes. But in any case, clearly simply rural settlements, 35,000 people. Now, if you look at the ratio of troops to population, it’s at worst—from the US point of view—one to four. Now, that—.

JAY: One soldier for every four people living there.

PORTER: One to every four.

JAY: So in theory they could just move in with everybody and that would be the end of it.

PORTER: Just about, yes. So this is an astonishingly intensive operation in terms of the number of troops that they had. The normal—the thing that the military strives for in counterinsurgency is one for every fifty, one troop for every fifty member of the population. So you can see that they were really piling it on.

JAY: So what are the indications that it hasn’t worked?

PORTER: The indication that it hasn’t worked is—the latest indication is a story by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the national editor of The Washington Post, last week, which was based on his trip to Marja, in which he found out that the population’s basically shunning contact with or cooperation with the foreign troops in that area. The first indication that he pointed out was that the female Marines in Marja tried to get the women of Marja, of this district-size population, to come to a meeting, a big meeting to talk about, presumably, security and other issues. Not a single woman showed up. That’s the first indication. The second indication is that they had money for 10,000 jobs, legitimate sort of labor, digging canals, and only about 1,200 people showed up to indicate that they were interested in any of those jobs.

JAY: And I think what he says, essentially, is that the threats from the Taliban against the population are trumping the promises of protection by the US troops.

PORTER: Well, exactly. I mean, the first point which trumps everything else is that they were unable to, essentially, eliminate the Taliban from Marja. The fact is the Taliban still have a presence, they’re still operating there. At nighttime they basically still exercise control. And, therefore, it is undeniable that the operation is a failure. And it’s an operation, again, using the most troop-intensive approach that one could imagine.

JAY: So the Kandahar campaign, which was supposed to start soon or has just about started and wasn’t supposed to take too long was all dependent on the local population giving some kind of support. So that seems to be a thesis that doesn’t work.

PORTER: Exactly. I mean, this is the problem that McChrystal has encountered in Kandahar. It was supposed to be that you bring in President Karzai, this is his old stomping ground, and he would say to people, okay, we’re going to do this and you’re going to support us, and everybody’s going to nod their head. In fact what happened was that Karzai went down to Kandahar in early April and had this big shura, a big conference with the notables, the elders from the villages and from the city, and basically he asked them: are you anxious about, are you worried about the United States having this? Meaning, are you really opposed to this operation? And they all shouted out, yes, we are. And then he said, well, it’s not going to happen unless you want it to happen. And that was a really big blow to the strategy that McChrystal had in mind. And, obviously, nothing has happened since then to really reverse that setback.

JAY: I mean, what you hear when you see Afghans interviewed and some of the people we’ve talked to is essentially they’re saying we know you’re leaving, and someday we’re going to face the Taliban on our own, and we’re not going to be known as having been collaborators in a day where the Taliban come back into power.

PORTER: Well, obviously, that is a big part of the problem that the US military faces in this part of Afghanistan, both Helmand and Kandahar, is that the population obviously understands the Taliban are not going to be eliminated. That’s not going to happen. The American military is even claiming now that that’s going to happen. And at the same time, they’re supposedly trying to persuade them that we’re going to be here to protect you from the Taliban. And so it’s really a nonstarter from the beginning. But beyond that, I mean, I think that McChrystal has now essentially admitted publicly, by saying that this is not going to be able to be started in June as we originally planned, and it won’t start until, at the earliest, September, and perhaps even later.

JAY: “It” being the campaign to maintain Kandahar.

PORTER: The campaign, whatever that might mean. What he’s really admitting is that he is up against a fundamental problem, which is that we can’t get the population and the village elders, the city elders, who in theory at least are supposed to be their leaders and representatives to say that they want the American troops to be there.

JAY: So it’s right at this moment where Petraeus has to come to Congress to talk about all of this, and everybody’s getting just more and more disillusioned about the prospects for US success in Afghanistan that they announced, through The New York Times, that there’s fabulous mineral riches in Afghanistan. They’re calling it the Saudi Arabia of lithium. There’s gold, there’s copper, there’s precious jewels. I think the only thing they were missing, I think, was diamonds.

PORTER: Diamonds, yes.

JAY: But they’ve got emeralds. And it seems to be legitimate information, in the sense that this has been known since 2007 because of the US Geological Survey. Nobody seems to have wanted to talk about it, and maybe because they didn’t want this to look like another oil war. But is this going to have any effect, do you think, on the politics of this back at home?

PORTER: Well, first of all, of course, it’s very clear that the reason that this has come out right now is that they are in a period where it’s becoming obvious that they’ve got severe problems with the strategy. And what I wrote this past week and what I think is still very valid is that McChrystal and his strategy face a real prospect, a real daunting prospect of a meltdown of political support. And by that I don’t mean so much public opinion as the political elite support in Washington, DC. And I think that was shown in the story that The Washington Post published a couple of days ago, in which they talked about very much increased unease on the part of people in Congress about the war. It’s now dawning on people that maybe this isn’t going to work. And you have Senator John Kerry saying, you know, Marja shows that the Taliban weren’t eliminated, and that wasn’t supposed to happen. So there’s a real possibility here that you could have a repeat of what happened in the Iraq War, and particularly the second half of 2006, when it became clear that the US military wasn’t going to be able to stop the sectarian violence, and everybody sort of gave up on the war.

JAY: Well, then you get a surge.

PORTER: Well, you had a surge, of course, in the case—.

JAY: And are we going to see the Afghan surge? In other words, is—President Obama, to cover his flank, does not want to be accused, number one, of the president who lost Afghanistan, and he certainly doesn’t want to be accused of being the president that lost Afghanistan because he wouldn’t give his generals all the troops they wanted. So are we looking at 1,000 more troops, sooner than later, on their way to Afghanistan?

PORTER: I think that that is going to become an issue, without question, in the latter half of this year and the beginning of next year. You’re going to have a very intense maneuvering between the military in the field—Petraeus, McChrystal—and their supporters in Washington really leaking to the press that, well, just reminding people that we did ask for 80,000 troops; he only gave us 30 to 40, more like 30,000 troops. There is—that sort of leaking to the press is going to be very widespread. There’s going to be intense pressure from the Republican party, led by John McCain, obviously, on Obama to have another surge in Afghanistan, just as they did in Iraq. Now, the problem of—there’s still the problem that the strategy doesn’t work, not because you don’t have enough troops but because of the fundamental assumption being wrong.

JAY: Which is that people aren’t going to help.

PORTER: People aren’t going to help. They’re going to still shun the United States, because they know the Taliban cannot be eliminated. And secondly, that you have a problem in Afghanistan that you’re not going to be able to come up with a Petraeus to bring in, to show a new face, to say, I have a new strategy that’s going to work, as opposed to the old strategy that is wrong.

JAY: So highly likely a lot more American soldiers on their way to Afghanistan.

PORTER: I don’t know that I would say it’s highly likely, but I certainly think that it’s a real possibility that that’s going to be the result of this intense political maneuvering and pressure on Obama.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

PORTER: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.