The dismissal of General Stanley A McChrystal as United States military commander in Afghanistan on 23 June 2010 is a high-profile news-story. But three other current events in relation to the Afghan war are also of great significance in assessing its underlying trends:
▪ the death of the 300th British soldier since the war began in October 2001, part of a growing casualty-rate that in numerical terms is lower than the US contingent's figure of 1,132 but proportionally much higher
▪ the reassignment of the United Kingdom's special representative in the region, Sherard Cowper-Coles, known to be sceptical about the conduct of the war
▪ a report that much of the financial aid directed from the United States into Kabul and other Afghan centres is ending up in the hands of local warlords or even of Taliban groups (see Karen DeYoung, “U.S. indirectly paying Afghan warlords as part of security contract”, Washington Post, 22 June 2010).
▪ the failure of Operation Moshtarak in central Helmand province to yield the intended results, as Taliban influence re-emerges
▪ high levels of graft and corruption, to the extent that US intelligence is obliged to devote substantial resources to limit the impact
▪ intensifying criticism by local people of the use of armed-drones - commonly termed the weapon of “cowards” and reported to aid rather than deter recruitment into paramilitary ranks.
▪ the Taliban’s ability to assassinate lower-level officials as a way of damaging the central government and reducing support for it
▪ the widespread view in communities across southern Afghanistan of foreign troops as occupiers not liberators.
The big picture
In light of all this, the McChrystal affair is but one element of a bleak overall situation. An incautious magazine interview ("The Runaway General", Rolling Stone, 22 June 2010) may have triggered Barack Obama’s decision to remove the outspoken general (and replace him with the head of US Central Command, General David H Petraeus); but McChrystal’s critical remarks or asides about US political leaders (including the president and vice-president Joe Biden) and diplomats (including Washington’s ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry) may also have offered a convenient pretext to shift course in an American strategy that faces deep problems.
The background of McChrystal’s sacking includes, in addition to the elements already mentioned, repeated criticism from his own troops in Afghanistan. In part this stems from the belief that McChrystal's policy of curbing the use of air-strikes and artillery-fire in order to limit Afghan civilian casualties makes the war more hazardous for troops on the ground (see CJ Chivers, “General Faces Unease Among His Own Troops, Too”, New York Times, 22 June 2010). McChrystal’s response to serious concern over civilian deaths may have a sound strategic as well as humanitarian justification, yet the very fact that soldiers at the sharp end of combat see things differently goes to the heart of Washington’s military-political predicament in Afghanistan – and elsewhere (see “America and the world’s jungle”, 27 May 2010).
The long view
It is also worth recalling that Stanley McChrystal was himself installed in place of David McKiernan as recently as May 2009, meaning that Barack Obama now has had three commanders in Afghanistan in less than two years. This beats even the rapid succession of French commanders - Jean de Lattre de Tassigny (1950-51), Raoul Salan (1952-53) and Henri Navarre (1953-54) - in the disastrous latter years of the Indochina war that culminated in the fall of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 and the precipitate French withdrawal (see “Afghanistan’s Vietnam portent”, 20 April 2008).
A wider view suggests another uncomfortable historical parallel - albeit with a twist.
The planning of the 9/11 attacks in 2000-01 involved the Frankfurt group responsible linking up with the Afghanistan-based al-Qaida leadership, which almost certainly saw the atrocities as having two distinct aims. The first was straightforward: to demonstrate to potential supporters that the movement could strike at the heart of the “far enemy” that wielded such power across the middle east and the Muslim world in general.
The second was to draw that enemy into the “home” territory of Afghanistan and then wear it down, much as the mujahideen’s war had crippled the Soviet Union in the 1980s. A few analysts argued at the time that a wise response to 9/11 would be to treat al-Qaida as a brutal transnational criminal entity – thus denying it the enhanced status of a military enemy that declaring “war” in Afghanistan entailed (a number of early columns in this series, which began on 13 September 2001, propounded this view; see, for example, “Afghanistan: the problem with military action” [28 September 2010]; “An elusive enemy” [21 October 2001]).
That analysis got nowhere, but the Pentagon initially at least avoided the trap laid for it by using air power, special forces and Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban Northern Alliance - rather than its own ground-troops - to terminate the Taliban regime.
It was at this point of apparent victory, however, that the greatest mistake of the last nine years was made: leaving Afghanistan to its own devices and failing to consolidate progress there, while enlarging the “war on terror” to embrace an “axis of evil” of rogue states - with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq at the head of the list. Again, this change of course was signalled by a number of observers at the time (see, for example, “On the eve” [3 October 2001]; “From Afghanistan to Iraq” [14 October 2001]).
This wholesale expansion of the “war on terror” was announced in what will likely be seen as one of the most significant speeches of the 21st century: George W Bush's first state-of-the-union address on 29 January 2002. In a fervent occasion redolent both of a declaration of war and a victory address (it was punctuated by more than seventy bursts of applause), the president offered the prospect of a relentless campaign against a precisely delineated “axis” that included Iran and North Korea as well as Iraq.
More than eight years on, Iran is pursuing nuclear plans and remains an intransigent adversary of the United States (see “Israel vs Iran: the risk of war”, 11 June 2010); North Korea has conducted nuclear-weapons tests and its regime too is still in place; Iraq’s regime-change in 2003 was followed by years of violent insurgency and conflict that shattered the society and created a combustible legacy. Meanwhile, the US dilemma in Afghanistan in the early 2010s is beginning to resemble the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and 1990s.
It is an exaggeration to say that the war in Afghanistan was the biggest factor in the demise of the Soviet Union, though there is little doubt that it was a major contributor to its dissolution. It would, in similar vein, be excessive to predict that the Afghanistan war will reduce the United States to a second-rate power. But what it does expose is the gradual corrosion of the US’s status; when combined with the protracted instability in Iraq and the endemic crisis with Iran – as well as wider currents in global politics – the longer-term trend is even clearer (see “Israel-Turkey-United States: Gaza’s global moment”, 3 June 2010).
Barack Obama certainly did inherit a toxic legacy. It was prefigured in the ideological infusions of the George W Bush administration, especially the perverse vision of a “new American century”. But in political terms the state-of-the-union address of January 2002 was the pivotal moment, setting the scene for all that has happened since.