McChrystal Faces "Iraq 2006 Moment" in Coming Months

Published on
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Inter Press Service

McChrystal Faces "Iraq 2006 Moment" in Coming Months

by
Gareth Porter

The Kandahar operation, which McChrystal's staff has touted as the pivotal campaign of the war, had previously been announced as beginning in June. But it is now clear that McChrystal has understood for weeks that the most basic premise of the operation turned out to be false.(Photograph: Nacho Doce/Reuters)

WASHINGTON - Gen. Stanley A.
McChrystal confronts the specter of a collapse of U.S. political
support for the war in Afghanistan in coming months comparable to the
one that occurred in the Iraq War in late 2006.

On Thursday,
McChrystal's message that his strategy will weaken the Taliban in its
heartland took its worst beating thus far, when he admitted that the
planned offensive in Kandahar City and surrounding districts is being
delayed until September at the earliest, because it does not have the
support of the Kandahar population and leadership.

Equally
damaging to the credibility of McChrystal's strategy was the Washington
Post report published Thursday documenting in depth the failure of
February's offensive in Marja.

The basic theme underlined in
both stories - that the Afghan population in the Taliban heartland is
not cooperating with U.S. and NATO forces - is likely to be repeated
over and over again in media coverage in the coming months.

The
Kandahar operation, which McChrystal's staff has touted as the pivotal
campaign of the war, had previously been announced as beginning in
June. But it is now clear that McChrystal has understood for weeks that
the most basic premise of the operation turned out to be false.

"When
you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them,"
said McChrystal, who was in Brussels for a NATO conference.

He didn't have to spell out the obvious implication: the people of Kandahar don't want the protection of foreign troops.

The
Washington Post story on McChrystal's announcement reported "U.S.
officials" had complained that "the support from Kandaharis that the
United States was counting on [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai to
deliver has not materialized."

That explanation hardly makes
McChrystal's war plan more credible, because Karzai has made no secret
of his preference for a negotiated settlement rather than continued
efforts to weaken the Taliban by occupying key Taliban strongholds.

The
report in the Post, written by National Editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran,
provided the first detailed evidence of the systematic non-cooperation
of the population of the district-sized area called Marja with U.S.
troops.

Chandrasekaran reported that female U.S. Marines tried
to get Afghan women to come to a meeting last week, but that not a
single woman showed up. And despite a NATO offer to hire as many as
10,000 residents for labour projects on irrigation projects, only about
1,200 have signed up.

The U.S. officials in Marja are trying to
convince local residents, in effect, that they should trust the foreign
troops to protect them from the Taliban, but the Taliban are still able
to threaten to credibly to punish those who collaborate with occupation
forces.

About a dozen people have been killed for such
collaboration already, and many more have been warned to stop,
according to Chandrasekaran's report.

"You can't get beyond
security when you talk to people," a civilian official working on
development told the Post editor. "They don't want to entertain
discussions about projects."

Chandrasekaran also reported that
representatives of rural development and education projects came to
Marja initially and then retreated to the province center. They appear
to be as convinced as the population that the Taliban will continue to
be a powerful presence in the region.

That was not supposed to
happen when the U.S.-NATO declared victory in Marja three months ago.
To ensure that no Taliban would be able to operate in the area,
McChrystal had deployed nearly 15,000 U.S., British and Afghan troops
to control Marja's population.

Despite news media references
before and during the offensive to Marja as a "city of 80,000", it was
an agricultural area whose population of about 35,000 was spread over
some 120 square kilometers, based on the fewer than 50 dwellings shown
on the Google Earth map of a 1.2 kilometer segment of the area.

That
means the 15,000 NATO and Afghan troops provide a ratio of one
occupying soldier for every two members of the population.
Counterinsurgency doctrine normally calls for one soldier for every 50
people in the target area.

The fact that the U.S.-NATO forces
could not clear the Taliban from Marja despite such an unusually heavy
concentration of troops is devastating evidence that the McChrystal
strategy has failed.

Throughout 2009, media coverage of the
war was focused on plans for a new offensive strategy that promised to
turn the war around. But Thursday's double dose of bad news suggests a
cascade of news stories to come that will reinforce the conclusion that
the war is futile.

That in turn could lead to what might be an
"Iraq 2006 moment" – the swift unraveling of political support for the
war on the part of the elected and unelected political elite, as
occurred in the Iraq War in the second half of 2006. The collapse of
elite political support for the Iraq War followed months of coverage of
sectarian violence showing the U.S. military had lost control of the
war.

McChrystal is still hoping, however, to be given much
more time to change the attitudes of the population in Helmand and
Kandahar.

Chandrasekaran quoted "a senior U.S. military
official in Afghanistan" - the term often used for McChrystal himself -
as saying, "We're on an Afghan timetable, and the Afghan timetable is
not the American timetable." The official added, "And that is the crux
of the problem."

McChrystal and his boss, CENTCOM chief Gen.
David Petraeus, may now be counting on pressure from the Republican
Party to force President Barack Obama to reverse his present position
that withdrawal of U.S. troops will begin next year.

That was
the view expressed Thursday by retired Army lieutenant colonel and
former Petraeus aide John Nagl, a leading specialist on
counterinsurgency who is now president of the Center for a New American
Security.

After the organization's annual conference, Nagle told
IPS that Obama will have to shift policy next year to give more time to
McChrystal, because he would otherwise be too vulnerable to Republican
attacks on his Afghanistan policy going into the 2012 election
campaign.

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