General McChrystal is to be congratulated, it seems to me, for the candor and seriousness of his report to the president on what has gone so wrong in Afghanistan and what can be done to set it right. McChrystal's role is to find a way to win: he's a soldier fighting a war. And yet this hardest of hard-nosed military men essentially concedes that this is a political problem at its heart. You cannot fight a counter-insurgency on behalf of a government that is as corrupt as Karzai's. And you cannot fight a counter-insurgency without vast numbers of troops to protect a population in an extremely remote and ungovernable region. And you cannot fight either without tackling the real source of the terror - in Pakistan.
So we are left with this dire set of alternatives. We either pack up and go home. Or we double-down for a couple of decades to try to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan, knowing that, even then, we cannot prevent any single Jihadist plot or attack coming from that region. The latest terror case reveals the threat:
What has troubled federal prosecutors and the F.B.I. is the belief that Mr. Zazi embodies what concerns them most: a Westernized militant, trained by Al Qaeda in Pakistan, whose experience and legal resident status in the United States give him the freedom to operate freely, yet attract little attention.
How would doubling down in Afghanistan affect this kind of activity?
From the Woodward leak:
While the insurgency is predominantly Afghan, McChrystal writes that it "is clearly supported from Pakistan. Senior leaders of the major Afghan insurgent groups are based in Pakistan, are linked with al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups, and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan's ISI," which is its intelligence service. Al-Qaeda and other extremist movements "based in Pakistan channel foreign fighters, suicide bombers, and technical assistance into Afghanistan, and offer ideological motivation, training, and financial support."
Al Qaeda operates with impunity in Pakistan:
McChrystal identifies three main insurgent groups "in order of their threat to the mission" and provides significant details about their command structures and objectives. The first is the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST) headed by Mullah Omar, who fled Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and operates from the Pakistani city of Quetta. "At the operational level, the Quetta Shura conducts a formal campaign review each winter, after which Mullah Omar announces his guidance and intent for the coming year," according to the assessment.
How do you win a war when it is being led and conducted in a country you are not at war with?
It seems to me we are at another turning point in the road, and one of the few moments when American enmeshment in Afghanistan might be turned back. We have to weigh the chances of serious terror groups re-grouping and operating even more freely throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan against the risks of more money, more troops, more casualties and more blowback. And let's not fool ourselves: neither of these is a good option. That's the Bush legacy.
But if McChrystal is right, he is strategizing Afghanistan as a semi-permanent protectorate for the US. This is empire in the 21st century sense: occupying failed states indefinitely to prevent even more chaos spinning out of them. And it has the embedded logic of all empires: if it doesn't keep expanding, it will collapse. The logic of McChrystal is that the US should be occupying Pakistan as well. And Somalia. And anywhere al Qaeda make seek refuge.
In the end, Gulliver cannot move. And his pockets are empty. Whom does that deter?