Strategy? What Strategy?

Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s advice to the president is driving debate on what America should do next in Afghanistan. But, Stephen Holmes argues, the emperor has no clothes.

Bill Clark / Newscom

Biden, Clinton, Gates, McChrystal, Panetta, Holbrooke—all of the players in war strategymet with Obama to talk Afghanistan and Pakistan for three hours in the Situation Room. But, Stephen Holmes argues, Gen. Stanley McChrystal doesn't have a strategy for Afghanistan.

Will President Obama embrace General Stanley McChrystal's "new strategy" for Afghanistan and order the deployment of 30,000 to 40,000 more troops perhaps not to win the war there but at least to avoid losing it? Or will the administration conclude, after the seriously flawed Afghan election, that McChrystal's strategy is neither affordable nor sustainable, and therefore decide to retain current troop levels, reduce them, or even withdraw?

To escalate or not to escalate is the dramatic and consequential question of the moment. But it rests on an unexamined assumption that is only weakly substantiated by the "Commander's Initial Assessment," sent by McChrystal to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on August 30 and calculatingly leaked to Bob Woodward. It assumes that McChrystal actually has a strategy. Does he?

Turning an illegitimate government into a legitimate one is simply beyond the capacities of foreigners, however wealthy or militarily unmatched.

That he has a diagnosis, there is no doubt. And it is dire. After eight years, nearly 800 American fatalities, and hundreds of billions of dollars: "the overall situation is deteriorating." Afghanistan is plagued by "a lack of security, governance, and economic opportunity." As a result, McChrystal's forces are faced with "a resilient and growing insurgency" compounded by "a crisis of confidence among Afghans." The economy is fueled almost entirely by illegal drugs and foreign aid. The citizens of Afghanistan "do not trust GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] to provide their essential needs, such as security, justice, and basic services." Feelings of "political disenfranchisement" and alienation from governing authorities are exacerbated by the "weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials." Fairly or unfairly, US and NATO forces are blamed for "the unpunished abuse of power by corrupt officials and power-brokers." As a result, many "elements of the population" are "tolerating the insurgency and calling to push out foreigners." Misgovernment and lack of economic opportunity has created "fertile ground for the insurgency."

McChrystal obviously hopes to enhance security, improve the quality of governance, reduce official corruption, favoritism and abuse of power, and increase economic opportunity. In this way, the population will be reconciled to the government supported by U.S. and NATO forces, and the Taliban will be undercut. But this is a wish list, not a strategy. How does he propose to bring any of this about?

Tina Brown: Let’s Not Abandon Afghan WomenUp front is his proposal to build up the Afghan security forces through an increase in training, equipping, mentoring and partnering. But there is nothing new about this proposal, even though numbers will be ramped up and ideal deadlines brought forward. Training is so non-controversial that even advocates of a light footprint in Afghanistan accept it fully. (Critics worry, on the other hand, that we are creating a military that cannot be sustained by domestic Afghan resources and that training doesn't prevent corruption or desertion or, for that matter, create loyalty to a central government viewed as illegitimate.)

In any case, McChrystal isn't simply saying that we need to do faster and better what we are already doing. He is advocating, instead, a radical change of course. For the past eight years, he explains, we have been fighting this war in a self-defeating way. Not only did the Bush administration fail to resource the war adequately; it did not understand that "security may not come from the barrel of a gun."

He freely admits that he is merely restating and applying to the Afghan campaign "the basics of counterinsurgency" in line with the thinking of his immediate superior, General David Petraeus. To change the dynamics on the ground, McChrystal wants his troops to do, and do immediately, something they are naturally reluctant to do, namely to leave their walled compounds, dismount from their turreted vehicles, and perhaps even shed their body armor to "share risks" with the people they are trying to protect. By removing these barriers to U.S. soldier/Afghan civilian interaction, U.S. forces will convey that they do not value American lives more than Afghan lives. By exiting from their hard shells, moreover, US troops will "gain accurate information and intelligence about the local environment" as well as acquiring "a far better understanding of Afghanistan and its people."

But such proposals, like the ban on airstrikes in residential areas, do not add up to a new comprehensive strategy. At most, they represent a few building blocks which, when stacked alongside other new approaches, will contribute to a comprehensive strategy. The genuinely "new strategy" that justifies additional manpower, in other words, can be understood only when we see how the proposed changes in military thinking and conduct are combined with proposed changes in the thinking and conduct of civilian agencies.

Here we come to the report's fatal flaw. McChrystal's request for additional resources is justified only if this integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy is intelligently and realistically designed. Those who doubt that McChrystal has an even vaguely plausible strategy for success in Afghanistan have this overall civilian-military strategy in mind.

The report states several times that "protecting the people means shielding them from all threats." Two threats in particular are singled out. The first is the insurgency. To protect the population against the insurgency, McChrystal proposes a surge of new forces into densely populated areas, effectively abandoning sparsely populated areas to the Taliban, especially at night. The second and equally grave threat is misgovernment at national, provincial, and local levels. Elected and appointed officials are not only deeply corrupt, they are also "predatory" and "malign." Nepotism and favoritism is all pervasive. Moreover, the Kabul government seems completely detached from and indifferent to the lives of average citizens: "There is little connection between the central government and the local populations, particularly in rural areas." Alienated from such an indifferent, corrupt, and abusive government, supported by "infidel" forces, many local communities choose to support the Taliban. They do not always have to be intimidated or coerced.

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So what is McChrystal's strategy for dealing with this second threat to the American mission? He provides his ostensible answer in his curiously hortatory recommendation that we "prioritize responsive and accountable governance." We need to do this for the simple reason that thieving, faction-dominated, incompetent, unresponsive and unaccountable governance "emboldens the insurgents." To prevent that from happening, the report explains, the U.S. must "insist" that the elected government of Afghanistan "redouble efforts to understand the social and political dynamics of all regions of the country."

Strictly speaking, improving the quality of governance and reducing official corruption, favoritism and abuse of power is a civilian not a military mission. To achieve this essential part of his overall strategy, without which, he admits, the military component would be entirely useless, McChrystal innocently expects Washington and its NATO allies to provide "a corresponding cadre of civilian experts to support the change in strategy." These civilian experts will bring to Afghanistan the technical expertise necessary to connect a hitherto disconnected central government to the rural population, to replace two-handed corruption with one-handed corruption, to create a minimally functioning system of justice, to create agricultural jobs profitable enough to prevent unemployed youth from joining the insurgency and, in general, to introduce "economic reforms" that will increase the standard of living. And they will do all this in time for positive results to be visible to the Afghan people within 12 to 18 months, or before NATO troops begin to withdraw and political patience is exhausted in the U.S.

The civilian experts he needs to prop up one half of his mission will not arrive because they do not exist. The expertise he imagines cannot be found in any agency of the governments of the U.S. and its allies. Private contractors may be adept at securing multimillion dollar contracts to promote the rule of law in underdeveloped countries, but the results of their well-remunerated efforts have been consistently nil. A realistic strategy for Afghanistan must begin with an admission of the profound limits of American power. We may intend to increase the legitimacy of the government by allowing it to take credit for financial and other assistance to the people; but we end up decreasing the legitimacy of the government when the funds we supply are skimmed or simply disappear. Turning an illegitimate government into a legitimate one is simply beyond the capacities of foreigners, however wealthy or militarily unmatched. Having established that the civilian "pillar" of the alleged strategy cannot bear the weight that McChrystal wants to place upon it, we can now turn a skeptical eye back on the military pillars as well. The report understandably laments that, after eight difficult years, key officials in ISAF remain totally "inexperienced in local languages and culture."

That soldiers coming America can be successfully ordered to demonstrate intellectual curiosity about a foreign people seems questionable. American soldiers, operating according to a conventional warfare model, came to Afghanistan to kill the enemy not to help (or understand) the population. McChrystal's principal hope is to change their priorities. But is that realistic?

McChrystal's assertion that building personal relations with the civilian population is a good way to gather accurate information has something to it; but it is also worth debating for reasons he does not seem to understand. Afghans, and not only they, have a lot of experience with manipulating foreigners by feeding them disinformation. The closer we listen, the more lies as well as truths we will take in. Local actors are obviously keen to please their foreign patrons or masters. But it makes no sense first to teach locals how to talk in an American idiom and then to express delight when they tell us what we want to hear.

What, in the end, does state building in Afghanistan have to do with protecting America from terrorist attacks? If state strength is a cure for terrorism, why do we worry about states that sponsor terrorism? This problem was brought nicely into focus by special envoy Richard Holbrooke, in a March press conference explaining the administration's new policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan presents the greater challenge for U.S. counterterrorism efforts, Holbrooke explained, "because it's a sovereign country, and there is a red line. And the red line is unambiguous and stated publicly by the Pakistani government over and over again. No foreign troops on our soil." In other words, the stronger the state, the more able and willing it becomes to create "denied areas"—that is, regions where American counterterrorism forces are not allowed to operate. We don't need to generalize wildly here. But the very possibility that state building can make counterterrorism more difficulta possibility never even mentioned in McChrystal's weakly reasoned report —further undermines the credibility of his "new strategy," this time by throwing its central but wholly unargued aim in doubt.

Stephen Holmes is professor of law and research director of the Center for Law and Security at the New York University School of Law. His most recent book is Matador’s Cape: America’s Reckless Response to Terror.