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US and NATO mired in Afghanistan

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General David Petraeus, the new commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, inherits a dire legacy from his predecessor, General McChrystal.

General David Petraeus, the new commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, inherits a dire legacy from his predecessor, General McChrystal. The Taliban insurgency continues and indeed the first half of 2010 has been the bloodiest period in the Afghan war since it began in 2001, according to claims made on June 12 by leading Afghan human rights group Afghan Rights Monitor, which has been monitoring civilian casualties from the very first day of the invasion. In the first six months of this year 1,074 civilians were killed and 1,500 were injured, compared with 1,059 dead in the same period of 2009. General Petraeus assumed command on July 4.

There is nothing unusual in this. Wars are started by politicians and are lost by the military. The Enduring Freedom operation in Afghanistan is no exception and a scapegoat has already been found, just in case. He is the previous commander of the coalition forces, four-star general Stanley McChrystal. Before being sent to Afghanistan he headed the United States Special Operations Command and he is the architect of the current US (and NATO) strategy in Afghanistan, all of which makes him eminently qualified to be a scapegoat.

The new coalition commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, is right when he says that the Afghan military campaign has entered a crucial stage. His message is that unless the Obama Administration's policy of half-hearted measures is reversed, the United States and NATO will end up mired in Afghanistan. Mire is an apt term for the current state of affairs in Afghanistan.

Petraeus has not yet bridled up like his predecessor Stanley McChrystal who gave an interview to Rolling Stone magazine in which he made disparaging remarks about the White House officials, their poor grasp of military matters and the situation in Afghanistan. But there are signs that he may put his foot down. Petraeus has already said that McChrystal's strategy will remain unchanged. It will not be without visible change, but without change in principle.

Moreover, Petraeus made it clear to the White House that, like Stanley McChrystal, he would not listen to civilian concerns as he considers such cooperation unnecessary. And yet Barack Obama fired Stanley McChrystal precisely for rejecting civilian participation.

A question arises: perhaps the differences between Obama's political and military advisers, on the one hand, and those who developed the new strategy and are implementing it, on the other hand, are too deep to be smoothed over by a simple reshuffle of key figures? This appears to be the case.

The concept underlying McChrystal's strategy for Afghanistan is simple: to minimize civilian casualties in ISAF operations, to seize the initiative and force the armed opposition to negotiate, to prepare the Afghan army and police to take over control of the situation in the country.

What immediately stands out is that McChrystal's strategy gives priority not to "initiative", as befits any military operation, but to the safety of the civilian population. He even restricted the use of aviation and artillery support in military operations in order to reduce collateral civilian casualties.

The motivation behind this is clear. McChrystal has in fact started a war for hearts and minds in Afghanistan. The civilian population is the focus of what NATO experts call "the new counter-insurgency strategy". McChrystal has sacrificed "initiative," and consequently control over the provinces, to "defending Afghans against the insurgents." The stakes have been made. Everything now depends on the reaction on the street. Are ordinary Afghans ready to rally around the blueprint they have been offered?

I am convinced that they are. But I am equally sure that they won't be able to in the little time that President Obama has given them. He announced that American troops will start withdrawing from Afghanistan in July 2011, while the "Obama strategy" developed for him by McChrystal was only endorsed in late 2009. In this short period of time the US and NATO will be unable to implement any of McChrystal's eleven points.

His plan covers eleven spheres of life in Afghanistan where McChrystal's "counter-insurgency strategy" seeks to weaken popular support for the Taliban: 1) through ensuring civilian safety, 2) by promoting information initiatives; 3) by building up the local judicial system and making it accessible; 4) through making the Afghan Government responsible and open; 5) by establishing an elected government and support for elections; 6) by countering intolerance among the population; 7) through creating permanent jobs; 8) by developing agriculture and the market; 9) through establishing trading sites and excluding insurgents from the market; 10) by fighting drug traffic, corruption, terrorism and organized crime; and 11) through the reintegration of the doubters in the state and society.

Stanley McChrystal is a Don Quixote in Afghanistan and his "new strategy," his Dulcinea, is, of course, beautiful and noble. It proposes countering violence by creating decent living standards. The toughest words it reserves for terrorists are "countering intolerance among the population." Crowning this gentlemanly set of values is "reintegration of the doubters in the state and society." Make a note of this: those to be "reintegrated" are "doubters" and not, as we are used to hearing and reading, "those who have accepted the Afghan constitution, laid down their arms and broken all ties with Al-Qaeda."

And yet McChrystal's strategy is far from being a utopia. True, two conditions are needed to put it into practice: first, sufficient time and no deadlines, and second, sufficient troops and resources. No less, but no more than this is what it needs. And they have to be there when they are needed, not six or twelve months later.

Barack Obama took a very long time sending his 30,000-strong additional force to Afghanistan. Today, this is no longer enough. Today, in order to seize the initiative at least a hundred thousand troops are needed, according to French General Vincent Deporte, the head of the Joint Staff College where France's elite armed forces are trained. "It is impossible to wage a 'semi-war' in Afghanistan," he believes, "one has either to send 100,000 troops or none at all."

The date of the troop withdrawal announced by the White House (July 2011) is at odds with the deadlines for the final withdrawal which is to take place when the situation in the country becomes stable and the Afghan army and police are able to control the situation independently. This makes no sense, as America's main NATO partners agree.

The German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg thinks that the worst NATO can do is to set fixed withdrawal deadlines. It is far better to focus on the initial date of the handover of responsibility for security to the Afghans.

Henry Kissinger was even more succinct in defining what is wrong with the White House Afghanistan strategy: it has yet to be adapted to current realities. So far this is the softest spot of Obama's strategy. As soft as a quagmire.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Pyotr Goncharov for RIA Novosti

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