Afghanistan: an impossible choice

The replacement of one United States general by another to lead the war against the Taliban leaves untouched the essentials of a failing campaign.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
1 July 2010

The small market town of Wootton Bassett in southwest England witnessed a familiar scene on 29 June 2010. A large funeral cortege carrying the bodies of seven young soldiers killed in Afghanistan wound its way from the Royal Air Force base at nearby Lyneham through streets lined by thousands of local residents who stood in silence to pay their respects. The families and friends of those soldiers in their own hometowns throughout Britain will remember them for years to come; many too will forever reflect on the war and what it has done.

Earlier in the same week in western Pakistan, two armed-drones killed ten people. Hundreds of their close relatives, extended families and friends will have mourned them, too. Many will be even more determined after this event to resist the foreigners, perhaps especially those people they regard as cowards for “piloting” the drones from distant Nevada (see Christopher Drew, "Drones: the weapon of choice in fighting Al Qaeda", International Herald Tribune, 18 March 2009).

On a much larger scale, and on the day the cortege drove through Wootton Bassett, the Nato/International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) reported that well over a hundred Taliban had been killed in an intense military operation. A few may have been foreign fighters but most of those killed will have been from towns and villages across that part of Afghanistan. The many funerals will have already taken place and it is likely that tens of thousands of people will have been related to, or will have known, the men who died. Their lives were taken not in a faraway country as were those of the young men from Britain, but (as it will be widely seen) by a foreign occupying force as they defended their own country (see “Washington vs Waziristan: the far enemy”, 14 May 2010).

The turf war

Amid the mourning elsewhere, there was little choice for Barack Obama other than to sack General Stanley A McChrystal as commander of US and Nato/Isaf forces in Afghanistan after the latter’s careless and insulting remarks about his political superiors reported in a magazine (see "The Runaway General", Rolling Stone, 22 June 2010). But the very fact that the US president was obliged to dismiss McChrystal - who is now leaving the army and may become a focus for discontent about the administration’s handling of the war - also now means he has little option but to stick with General David H Petraeus, who was confirmed by the senate in his new post on 30 June 2010: to lose three generals (since McChrystal himself replaced David McKiernan as commander in Afghanistan in May 2009) would be beyond political acceptability.

Petraeus arrives in his new post with a reputation for rethinking US army counterinsurgency operations and for turning the tide of the war in Iraq. The latter claim may be somewhat inflated, not least as the violence there is far from over, though there is little doubt that Petraeus is a highly intelligent and thoughtful general (see David Petraeus, “’None of This Is Easy’”, Foreign Policy, 23 June 2010). Yet he is faced with a dauntingly complex conflict in Afghanistan. The missile-attack “welcome” on a Nato military base in Jalalabad on 30 June 2010 underscores the point, as does the stalled situation in the area of Marjah in central Helmand province in which coalition forces have invested such efforts and hopes (see Julius Cavendish, “Nato's grand experiment leaves Marjah scrabbling for a future”, Independent, 30 June 2010).

Moreover, Petraeus’s task is complicated further by a developing political standoff in Washington between two opposing positions. The first is a view shared by several hawkish Republicans that has coalesced around Senator John McCain: that the US needs to go for a convincing military victory over the Taliban and the destruction of the remaining parts of the al-Qaida movement in western Pakistan. This may well require a further surge in troop numbers towards a total coalition presence of close to 200,000, and a timeframe stretching to and beyond the presidential election in 2012.

The contrasting view emanates from the heart of the Barack Obama administration: that the current surge must be developed with sufficient power to force the Taliban to a negotiated settlement, even if the latter turns out to be an unsatisfactory political compromise. Here again the timeframe is crucial; there must be substantial progress, including troop withdrawals, well before the start of campaigning in 2011.

Petraeus may believe that in principle a compromise with the Taliban (or elements thereof) can be achieved, but he will not be prepared to accommodate this outcome in such a short-term timetable that the United States would be required to make unacceptable concessions. Many senior army and marines officers will most likely support this stance, as will the defence lobby as a whole - for whom the massive spending on the war is particularly welcome at a time of fragile recovery from recession (see Richard Wolf, “Afghan war costs now outpace Iraq’s”, USA Today, 12 May 2010).

The military, in particular, is deeply concerned about the consequences of an early withdrawal, not least because of the risk that it can be presented as having at least partly failed in Iraq and achieved a deeply unsatisfactory outcome in Afghanistan. The United States cannot afford even the appearance of having fallen far short of its objectives in two wars.

The last choice

There is one other choice which is not on the table and is not even voiced in public by senior military, politicians or public servants, though it may now be contemplated in the inner reaches of Whitehall and Pennsylvania Avenue (see “AfPak: the unwinnable war”, 16 October 2009). This is to accept that the war cannot be won; that more troops mean a more intensive war; and that there has to be a rapid pullout well before the end of 2010, taking Isaf down to little more than a training-force.

If this were to happen, then coalition policy would have to be directed towards securing as many as possible of the following goals for a post-war Afghanistan:

Two key elements of the background of the war make these requirements very hard to fulfil. The first is that the international forces in Afghanistan are not regarded across much of the region as in any sense neutral. There is an almost universal assumption that the coalition is dominated by the United States, and that Washington operates always on the basis of wider geopolitical interests rather than for the intrinsic good of Afghanistan and its people.

The second element is the deep-seated belief in western capitals that “we are the good guys”: intent on liberating Afghanistan without ulterior motives, guided by intentions beyond reproach (see Anatol Lieven, “America right or wrong”, 7 September 2004).

These are deep-seated if essentially contrary views, which tend to an uncomfortable judgment: that starting the war in Afghanistan was an appalling if understandable mistake and that there is actually very little that western states can do now to improve the situation, apart from getting out (see “Afghanistan: the fatal error”, 24 June 2010). Such a conclusion is probably too radical even for an intelligent person of the calibre of General Petraeus to contemplate.

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