Throwing Darts for a Mission in Afghanistan

In yesterday's Washington Post, Bob Woodward, writing about General Stanley McChrystal, reported that "the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan warns, in an urgent" assessment of the war, "that he needs more forces within the next year" or the U.S.-led war "will likely result in failure." Quoting McChrystal, Woodward wrote, "without more forces ... defeat is likely." Woodward reported that McChrystal's "call for more forces is predicated on the adoption of a strategy in which troops emphasize protecting Afghans rather than killing insurgents or controlling territory."[i]

Yet, on the same day as Woodward's report in the Post, the Associated Press reported that another strategy altogether is under consideration at the White House, which "is considering expanding counterterror operations in Pakistan to refocus on eliminating al-Qaida instead of mounting a major military escalation in Afghanistan," and that "the renewed fight against the terrorist organization could lead to more missile attacks on Pakistan terrorist havens by unmanned U.S. spy planes."[ii]

It thus seems that while McChrystal's strategy is focused on getting more troops to Afghanistan to "protect Afghans rather than killing insurgents or controlling territory," President Obama's strategy is to kill al-Qaeda insurgents in Pakistan with drones.

Furthermore, McChrystal wrote that "without a new strategy, the mission [in Afghanistan] should not be resourced"--that is, additional troops and money should not be committed to the war in Afghanistan. And President Obama likewise said only last week (according to Woodward) that he will not send more troops to Afghanistan until he has "absolute clarity about what the strategy is going to be."

It thus appears that as of yesterday (September 21, 2009), there is little agreement between the military commander in Afghanistan and the president about military strategy in Afghanistan. This being the case, and given the standards of escalation stipulated by both President Obama and General McChrystal-the requirement of a clear strategy-no additional troops should be sent, or money spent, on the war in Afghanistan.

Also, Obama's strategy of bombing al-Qaeda in Pakistan lies outside the U.N. Security Council's mandate for the U.S.-NATO ISAF operations in Afghanistan, which is described on the NATO Web site as follows:

In accordance with all the relevant Security Council Resolutions, ISAF's main role is to assist the Afghan government in the establishment of a secure and stable environment. To this end, ISAF forces are conducting security and stability operations throughout the country together with the Afghan National Security Forces and are directly involved in the development of the Afghan National Army through mentoring, training and equipping.[iii]

At least McChrystal's memorandum on Afghanistan to Defense Secretary Gates (and by extension to President Obama) outlines a mission that lies within ISAF's Security Council mandate,[iv] while the president's reported goal of regularizing the bombing of al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan does not.

Finally, about the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, which McChrystal heads, he candidly reported that, after eight years of ISAF operations, "many indicators suggest the overall situation is deteriorating," and "we face not only a resilient and growing insurgency" but "a crisis of confidence among Afghans."

Given the apparent disarray on strategy between the White House and its commander in Afghanistan, and even looking at the war in Afghanistan from the narrow perspectives of the political and military leaders in Washington, it is hard to believe that a coherent military strategy for defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban is imminent, or even possible. Or how the always disastrous but dependable eventuality-a politically timid American president escalating yet another long and brutal war-will bring Afghanistan, Pakistan, or the United States any closer to peace and political stability.

[i] "McChrystal: More Forces or Mission Failure," Washington Post, September 21, 2009.

[ii] "Sources: US Eyes More Drone Hits in Afghanistan," Associated Press, September 21, 2009.

[iii] North Atlantic Treaty Organization: NATO's Role in Afghanistan, last updated September 18, 2009, at

[iv] See McChrystal's August 30, 2009, memorandum to Gates at

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