Obama's Afghan strategy in tatters

The change of top military command in Afghanistan is not about personalities, writes Peter Manson

Last week’s sacking of general Stanley McChrystal signals the total failure of US strategy in Afghanistan. Barack Obama clearly no longer believes that the US can win and will not only push ahead with the winding down of the US presence in a year’s time. His new commander, general David Petraeus, will front some kind of exit strategy that will leave the US with bases but with Afghans killing Afghans, instead of Afghans killing Americans.

On June 23 McChrystal “offered his resignation” - which was promptly accepted by Obama - following the publication of a lengthy article in Rolling Stone magazine by a reporter who had spent months alongside US troops in Afghanistan, including McChrystal and his senior aides.[1] They were portrayed as macho military men with a contemptuous disdain for politicians and diplomats - including Obama’s closest advisors. Some commentators have claimed that their remarks were “insubordinate”, although there seems to be no evidence of this, and McChrystal in particular was said to have shown “disrespect” for the French by allowing his resentment at having to attend a Paris function to be noted by the reporter.

It was the critical expression of disagreements that allegedly caused Obama to dismiss McChrystal: “I welcome the debate among my team,” he said, “but I won’t tolerate divisions.” However, it was always going to be unlikely that a reporter given virtually unrestricted access to the top brass and Obama’s Afghan “team” would not overhear strongly worded criticisms and witness “divisions”. And surely a non-establishment publication in particular could not be expected to reject the publication of such gems. Apparently the idea was that a magazine read mainly by “young people” would help build support among youth for the armed forces if the situation was reported ‘like it is’.

Obama stated that the appointment of Petraeus, the former commander in Iraq who was subsequently appointed head of the US central command, should not be read as “a change in policy”. At first sight it might appear that way, since McChrystal worked under Petraeus in Iraq and was certainly putting into practice in Afghanistan what Petraeus had driven in Iraq - an increase in military numbers, combined with an attempt to win ‘hearts and minds’. It was Petraeus who had championed the ‘troop surge’ in Iraq, which was credited with strengthening the US hand and allowing former ‘insurgents’ to be ‘pacified’ by incorporating them in the ‘normal’ political process. This in turn allowed US failure to be dressed up as a victory.

McChrystal was appointed in June 2009 to ‘turn round’ the war in Afghanistan. He demanded 40,000 extra troops and was eventually given 30,000 - which somewhat called into question Obama’s commitment to start bringing home the troops by July 2011. In fact US troops have not yet reached their maximum projected number. Within the next few months they are set to rise by 4,000 to 98,000, which will take the overall total of Nato personnel up to around 130,000 (the UK has the second biggest contingent of the 45 countries represented, with just under 10,000).

Hand in hand with the ‘surge’ came the policy enthusiastically promoted by McChrystal of “courageous restraint”. In other words, US combat troops were under orders as far as possible to avoid the possibility of ‘collateral damage’ - the killing of civilians and the destruction of their property. According to US operational instructions, “destroying a home or property jeopardises the livelihood of an entire family - and creates more insurgents”. Similarly, “large-scale operations to kill or capture militants carry a significant risk of causing civilian casualties and collateral damage”. So troops had to display the necessary ‘courage’ to engage in operations where they faced greater risk than previously. They were not allowed to “engage the enemy” unless they could “positively identify” someone firing at them. Predictably, this did not do much for military morale. Troops also complained about the difficulties involved in calling for back-up air strikes under the new policy. Night raids were virtually banned.

Soldiers were also told to patrol only in those areas where they were “reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourselves with lethal force” - Rolling Stone notes that such instructions are seen by troops as futile: what is the point in patrolling where you know you won’t be attacked? Why fight a war in a way that means you cannot win, at least in the military sense?

The Sunday Telegraph reporter on the ground observed the same sort of complaint. One soldier asked what they were expected to do when “in the middle of a fire fight you suddenly see a civilian or a child out in the open, who has been placed there by insurgents” (June 27). Of course, such a suggestion that ‘the enemy’ would not think twice about using a child as a ‘human shield’, craftily taking into account US engagement rules, is absurd. In fact imperialist propagandists have always claimed that ‘the enemy’ just does not ‘fight fair’ - for example, US forces in Vietnam alleged that the North Vietnamese insisted on placing anti-aircraft guns in populated areas, rather than out in the open, where they could be ‘taken out’ without killing civilians. It would have been even ‘fairer’ not to try to resist the blanket aerial bombardments at all, I suppose.

Nevertheless, it is understandable that troops object when they are told not to use all available means - in effect to put themselves in greater danger in order to reduce the danger faced by others. But this is besides the point. Yes, it is true that inflicting casualties on the population and destroying their homes will turn them against you. But were they ever on your side in the first place?

In reality, the attempt to nation-build - either in Iraq or Afghanistan was always a dead end. As retired US colonel Doug Macgregor asserts, it is “beyond our capability to change, transform or fix Afghanistan”. That is the cold calculation of the US military - although, of course, the political establishment would rather not tell you that they had been lying about that all along.

But it seems that general McChrystal had started to believe the lies and wanted to continue pursuing a politico-military strategy that would “fix” Afghanistan (in a way that an imperialist warrior like himself imagines the Afghans want it ‘fixed’). That is why he had to go. It is not so much that Obama wants to return to the normal US way of waging war - with overbearing firepower, mass destruction and thousands of deaths. Rather he wants to stop waging it as soon as possible.


There has been a huge erosion of public support for the war after nine years - not least in view of the fact that, year on year, troops casualties have steadily increased. June 2010 has been the most costly in terms of military deaths in Afghanistan. Over 1,000 US troops have now died, while the British troop losses recently passed 300. Soldiers are being killed at a rate of one a day.

The imperialist occupation is clearly not winning and, the longer it goes on, the more evident that will become to just about everyone. So Petraeus has been brought in to ‘do an Iraq’. That will involve stitching up a deal with the various Afghan political factions - including, it goes without saying, the forces that the troops were sent in to root out and destroy in view of their threat to global security and their sheltering of Al Qa’eda terrorists: the Taliban.

David Kilcullen, one of Petraeus’s advisors, said: “There is nothing wrong with talking to the enemy - that is how you win these things in the end” - “from a position of strength,” he added. Tory MP and former army officer Adam Holloway does not pull his punches on this one: “The only way out of the mess we find ourselves in is to make political deals” - and that means direct negotiations with the Taliban (“moderate” or otherwise).

Asked on June 25 whether British troops would be home by the next general election, prime minister David Cameron said: “We can’t be there for another five years, having been there for nine already.” For his part, Labour’s former foreign secretary and the front runner in the party leadership contest, David Miliband, issued a statement declaring that any peace deal “must include the vanquished as well as the victors”. Which means “allowing space for discussion to bring people from the insurgency into Afghan society”. After all, “removing the violence is not appeasement”.

Yet more nonsense. The “victors” do not enter negotiations to strike a deal with the “vanquished”. They demand unconditional surrender and impose their own terms for a settlement. But talks with the unvanquished Taliban have undoubtedly been going on for some time. ‘Unreliable’ Afghan allies like president Hamid Karzai have taken to referring to the Taliban as “Afghan brothers”.

So does all this mean that the imperialists will just pull out and let the Taliban take over? Hardly. The Taliban were never in control of the whole country in the first place. A US withdrawal would, therefore, not hand over Afghanistan to one faction. There would be a de facto partition, similar to what has occurred in Iraq, with its separate areas effectively run by Sunni, Shia and Kurds.

Like Iraq, Afghanistan is a multinational state - with the difference that its sense of national identity is felt by a much smaller proportion of the population. Instead there is loyalty to a tribe, to a warlord - the Taliban, for example, enjoy mass support only in Pashtun areas. They could not be defeated short of the overthrow of the existing, class-based tribal order - and that, of course, was something the imperialists would not contemplate.

Also like Afghanistan, however, the imperialists, having wreaked their havoc and ruination, look set to retreat claiming victory, but leaving behind them a state that is less viable, a society that operates less effectively, than under even the previous regimes, reactionary though they were.

Some achievement!


  1. www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/17390/119236