Military April 2010

Man Versus Afghanistan

Divided by geography, cursed by corruption, stunted by poverty, staggered by a growing insurgency—Afghanistan seems beyond salvation. Is it? From Somalia and the Balkans to Iraq, the U.S. military has been embroiled in conflicts that reflect an age-old debate: Can individual agency triumph over deep-seated historical, cultural, ethnic, and economic forces? Drawing on his experiences in Iraq, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, has his own answer to that question.
Kate Brooks

We were there to fight, to do PT, to eat, to sleep, then to fight again. There was no big-screen TV or other diversion in the barracks. It was a world of concrete, plywood, and gun oil, and it was absolutely intoxicating in its intensity and unlike anything that existed in the British military.” So recollected retired Lieutenant Colonel Richard Williams of the elite British Special Air Service, concerning the worst days in Iraq. In December 2006, Williams told me, there were more than 140 suicide bombings in Baghdad, a level of violence that he likened to the Nazi Blitz on London. In December 2007, there were five. “General McChrystal delivered that statistic,” a feat that not even the recent bombings in Baghdad can detract from. In Iraq, he went on, General Stanley A. McChrystal raised the “hard, nasty business” of counterterrorism—of “black ops”—to an industrial scale, with 10 nightly raids throughout the city, 300 a month, that McChrystal, now 55, regularly joined.

Williams did not discount the decisive Sunni Awakening, the surge of 20,000 extra troops into Iraq, or the deployment of troops outside the big Burger King bases and deep into the heart of hostile Iraqi neighborhoods. But he insisted that the work of the special operators commanded by McChrystal was also pivotal.

Slideshow: General Stanley McChrystal and his team take on the war in Afghanistan
(Photos by Kate Brooks)

And, Williams added, there was never any question that they would succeed.

“Doubt,” T. E. Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926), is “our modern crown of thorns.” The Special Operations forces that McChrystal led in Iraq were not so afflicted, despite a home front—especially a policy nomenklatura in Washington—that by 2006 had given up on the war. McChrystal, whom Williams called “the singularly most impressive military officer I ever served with,” has never submitted to fate. His oft-documented physical regimen—running eight miles a day, eating one meal a day, and sleeping four hours a night—itself expresses an unyielding, almost cultic determination.

Last December, in a spare, homely office in Kabul that felt like the business-class lounge of a bad airline, McChrystal recalled his Iraq experience for me: “I remember”—he pauses—“we had a meeting in Balad [an air base north of Baghdad] in the spring of 2006, where we asked ourselves, ‘Have we already lost, and are too stubborn to admit it?’ After all, the military is hard-wired to be optimistic, so there is a danger of not being realistic. Well, we decided that we hadn’t lost. By then we had [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi in our sights. We could smell him. We also felt, in those dark days, that we could break and implode alQaeda. We in JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] had this sense of … mission, passion … I don’t know what you call it. The insurgents,” McChrystal went on, “had a real cause, and we had a counter-cause. We had a level of unit cohesion just like in The Centurions and The Praetorians,” 1960s novels by Jean Lartéguy about French paratroopers in Indochina and Algeria. “It was intense,” McChrystal said, scrunching his already deeply carved face. “We were hitting alQaeda in Iraq like Rocky Balboa hitting Apollo Creed in the gut.”

I asked whether the situation in Iraq in 2006 was bleaker than Afghanistan now.

“Look, this isn’t easy,” he sighed. “Afghanistan for years got worse and worse, and the coalition sometimes lagged behind the reality of the situation.” Because the country is so decentralized, he explained, it is extraordinarily complex, with a different tribal and sectarian reality in each district. But then he ticked off ways the war could be won. “The insurgency is only fundamentally effective in the Pashtun belt. The critical part of the population is where the water and the roads are. People near water are more important economically: along the Helmand and Kabul rivers. You secure these areas, and you take the oxygen out of the insurgency.” He continued, talking about developing a corps of Afghan-area experts within the United States military akin to the American “China hands” of the early and mid-20th century, and “British East India Company types” who went out for years and learned the local languages. His command sergeant major, Mike Hall of Avon Lake, Ohio, said that when McChrystal selected his team of generals and colonels to come with him to command the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in June 2009, he more or less told them to “get out of the deployment mentality—that they would be in-country for 18 months, two and a half years, for the duration, however long it took to win.”

McChrystal believes that the “ideological piece” of alQaeda is “truly scary”: that a new brand of totalitarianism—alQaeda the franchise—is running amok and motivating small secretive groups around the world, and that victory in Afghanistan is necessary to deliver a “huge moral defeat” to it.

McChrystal’s resolve is part of a larger, deeper story. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has repeatedly employed its military, wisely and unwisely, as a weapon against fate and inevitability. In that capacity, the military has become the principal protagonist in an intellectual debate, raging since antiquity, that pits individual moral responsibility against determinism—the belief that historical, cultural, ethnic, economic, and other antecedent forces determine the future of men and nations. McChrystal, the commander of American and NATO troops in an Afghanistan that is tottering on the edge of chaos, is both the supreme and most recent symbol of that struggle.

The ur-text for a philosophical discussion of the role of the U.S. military in the post–Cold War era is Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 Oxford lecture, “Historical Inevitability,” in which he condemns as immoral and cowardly the belief that vast impersonal forces such as geography, environment, and ethnic characteristics determine the direction of world politics. Berlin reproaches Arnold Toynbee and Edward Gibbon for seeing “nations” and “civilizations” as “more concrete” than the individuals who embody them, and for seeing abstractions like “tradition” and “history” as “wiser than we.”

In the 1990s, the Balkans were a classic case of setting determinists and realists, who were dissuaded from military intervention because of Yugoslavia’s often bloody history and its questionable strategic importance, against liberal internationalists and neoconservatives, who favored intervention because they opposed giving Yugoslavia up to fate, especially in light of the Holocaust. My own book, Balkan Ghosts, was attacked as deterministic, and was misused as an argument against intervention in 1993, when it first appeared, even as I supported intervention in print and on television. The fact that I wrote a book about a bloody ethnic history and favored intervention was no contradiction: only the most difficult human landscapes require intervention in the first place, and when one does intervene militarily, one should always do so without illusions. Winston Churchill’s geographical and cultural portrait of Sudan in The River War (1899), which was next on McChrystal’s reading list when I saw him, is full of determinism, yet Churchill nevertheless favored intervention there.

The Balkan interventions, however belated, stopped the ethnic cleansing, did not lead to military quagmires, paid strategic dividends, and in so doing appeared to justify the idealistic approach to foreign policy. Indeed, the 1995 humanitarian intervention in Bosnia changed the debate from “Should NATO exist?” to “Should NATO expand?” Our 1999 war in Kosovo, as much as the attacks of September 11, 2001, allowed for the expansion of NATO to the Black Sea. It also led to the toppling of the Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milošević. In the aftermath, realists and determinists seemed vanquished; to be called either one back then was practically an insult.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq, to which I subscribed, had Balkan antecedents. In fact, some intellectuals agitating for intervention in the Balkans had earlier railed against President George H. W. Bush for not sending U.S. troops the extra few hundred kilometers to Baghdad in 1991 to depose Saddam Hussein. For those Gulf War idealists, finishing the job in Iraq against a regime that had killed, directly and indirectly, several times more people than would Milošević’s, was in keeping with the Balkan passions of the era. In 2003, the idea of regime change in Iraq appealed to those willing to do anything to defeat the deterministic forces of geography and ethnic and sectarian differences, and to those who thought that the American military power evident in the Balkans, particularly air power, had rendered such forces moot, paving the way for universalist ideas to triumph over terrain and history.

So what began in the mid-1990s with a limited, American-dominated air-and-land campaign in the western, most-developed part of the former Ottoman Empire led less than a decade later to a mass infantry invasion in its eastern, least-developed part. In March 2004, I found myself in Camp Udairi, in the midst of the Kuwaiti desert. I had embedded with a Marine battalion that, along with the rest of the First Marine Division, was about to begin the overland journey to Baghdad and western Iraq, replacing the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division there. Lines of seven-ton trucks and Humvees stretched across the horizon, all headed north. A sandstorm had erupted. An icy wind was blowing. Rain threatened. Vehicles broke down. And we hadn’t even begun the several-hundred-kilometer journey to Baghdad that, a few short years earlier, had been dismissed as easy to accomplish by those who thought of toppling Saddam Hussein as merely an extension of toppling Slobodan Milošević. In that environment, only a fool would suggest that deterministic elements like geography no longer mattered.

And on February 22, 2006, when Sunni alQaeda extremists blew up the Shiite alAskari Mosque at Samarra and unleashed a fury of intercommunal atrocities, American troops seemed powerless before primordial hatreds. The myth of an omnipotent U.S. military—born in the Gulf War, battered in Somalia, then repaired and burnished in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo—was for the moment undone, along with the idealism that went with it. Ethnic and sectarian differences in far-off corners of the world, seen in the 1990s as obstacles that good men should strive to overcome, now loomed as factors that should have warned us away from military action.

The debate does not end there. In late 2006 and early 2007, as Iraq was crumbling and ethnic atrocities reached Balkan dimensions and threatened to rise to those of Rwanda, much of the Washington establishment, especially the realists, called for scaling back or withdrawing our military mission. President George W. Bush did the opposite. He did not succumb to fate. Those supporting him were few, but they included neoconservatives, who essentially argued that human agency—more troops and a new strategy—could triumph over vast impersonal forces, in this case those of sectarian madness. Part of that new strategy, which worked beyond all expectations, was, as we know, McChrystal’s industrial-level approach to counterterrorism. Yet that is not to say the struggle against fate in Iraq was worth it. The ultimate cost—in more than 100,000 American and Iraqi lives (and perhaps many more), more than a trillion taxpayer dollars, and untold amounts of squandered diplomatic capital—is a strong argument in favor of less zeal and more determinism. Some may say that President Bush could have changed his strategy and his generals earlier than he did and incurred fewer casualties as a result. But one can play the counterfactual game to no end, and still be stuck with how the war has actually turned out.

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Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, in Washington, D.C.

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