Afghanistan: The McChrystal Assessment

When the Afghan worker called to me, I was more curious than anxious.

It was just after one o'clock in the morning, and double-digits below zero. He stood in the doorway of the ramshackle kitchen like a schoolboy on the lookout, his demeanor more mischievous than malevolent. I always had a friendly relationship with the locals, and there was something inside that he very much wanted me to see.

Like most buildings on camp, the kitchen was assembled with little more than plywood and optimism, and offered no respite from the cold. My host and his three companions stood huddled around a card table, gawking and giggling at a portable DVD player.

"Is nice!" said an Afghan proudly, grinning and offering a thumbs-up.

"Yes," I said, pleased to be part of their conspiracy.

On the small screen played a black-market video of a veiled belly dancer.

To be sure, this was no pornography by Western standards. Disney characters dress and move more provocatively than did this woman, turquoise-wrapped and sequin adorned. But when compared with the hideous burkas foisted upon Afghan women with the rise of the Taliban, it was, indeed, quite an eyeful.

At that moment, it became very clear to me that whatever fate awaited Afghanistan, the Taliban would never again enjoy the good will of the Afghan people. If ever they returned to power, it would be by force and by our own folly, the result in the kind of purge not seen since Cambodia in the 1970's.

The problem facing ordinary Afghans is not one of nerve but of tactical sophistication. The mission of the United States and NATO, therefore, is neither expressly offensive (air strikes and Mark 80 bombs), nor entirely defensive (sniping invaders on the horizon). Rather, it is one of supplementation and partnership. While diplomats work with the Afghan government to cultivate policy and reduce systemic corruption, the military must train the Afghan army, and live, eat, sleep, and fight along side them.

General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, seems to think likewise. His much-anticipated assessment of the campaign does away with the counterproductive strategies of old, of bombing runs and door-kicking--"disruptive operations"--and emphasizes a sort of armed humanitarianism built upon strong relationships with the local populace. In large measure, the operation becomes a civil affairs mission, and focuses on the doctrine of Military Operations Other Than War. As McChrystal states in his recently issued ISAF Commander's Counterinsurgency Guide, "Earn the support of the people and the war is won, regardless of how many militants are killed or captured."

Infrastructure is just such a mechanism for change. McChrystal advocates a proliferation of projects across Afghanistan that puts Afghans to work and money in their pockets. Jobs, his assessment reportedly states, will solve sixty percent of the nation's problems. In addition to building a sustainable, self-sufficient nation on every level, from village schoolhouses to national highway systems, it will build local trust of the U.S. and ISAF soldiers working side-by-side with them.

A hospitable populace is key to McChrystal's goal of doubling the sizes of both the Afghan army and the police force. Any such plan leans heavily on the force-multiplying Green Berets (in conjunction with U.S. infantry and military police) to recruit and grow the Afghan army. McChrystal, himself a thirty-year Special Forces officer, intends to meet the ambitious target within three years. Any successful exit strategy from Afghanistan will depend on an effective security apparatus.

Not publicly stated, though certainly understood, is that large swaths of combat operations will fall under the domain of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command. Ruthlessly efficient and surgical in its precision, JSOC operates in "the shadows," as former Vice President Cheney once described it. While under the command of General McChrystal, it was JSOC who captured Saddam Hussein, and JSOC who killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. (Indeed, McChrystal personally identified the body.)

His plan faces a singular peril that the Iraq surge in 2007 did not. Though President Bush's approval was at a low point, he had by then dedicated his presidency to the war and its consequences. When General David Petraeus requested additional troops, Bush endorsed and implemented the plan against political winds and public opinion. Congressional opposition, to include guidelines for deployment levels and timetables for withdrawal, was rejected.

President Obama now faces collapsing approval ratings of his own amidst his efforts to bring sweeping change to national economic policy. A massive, renewed commitment to an unpopular war has the potential to drag him down even deeper. The last president to make such a gambit was LBJ, a fact of which Obama is very well aware.

Compounding his problems are congressional Democrats, who already are hostile to a troop surge. Senator Russ Feingold's opportunistic editorial in the Wall Street Journal this weekend was either an attempt to undercut McChrystal's report, or a shot across the bow of the Obama administration. Either way, it expressed a certain willingness to sacrifice Afghanistan for political expedience, and a guaranteed a lengthy debate that the president does not want.

Though General McChrystal's assessment does not explicitly state the figure, implementation of a civil affairs plan of this magnitude will require tens of thousands more soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has suggested Britain will increase troop levels, providing Obama some cover, but unless NATO allies similarly supply urgently needed forces, it falls to the United States to make up the deficit. With a majority of Americans now opposed to the war in Afghanistan, it may be a tough argument indeed.

But it is an argument worth making. During my time in Afghanistan, the adhan of a nearby village sounded daily from a speaker system wired to a car battery. Accommodations were always made for the Afghan workers to observe formal prayer, though they seemed to do so with infrequence, and even then, often in a perfunctory manner. Nobody knows the business end of militant, fundamentalist Islam like the Afghan people. Their state was born with every obstacle a nation could conceivably face. There have been missteps and grave errors along the way, but ultimately, there should be no question as to whose side they are on. The humanitarian mission in store for the United States and the international community will not come without great cost, but it is not a hopeless endeavor. It is not the easy thing to do, but it is the right thing.