More on the Afghan Rorschach test

A friend in Australia pointed me to the transcript of a speech in Canberra last week by Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald, who has reported extensively from Afghanistan over the past eight years. The war in Afghanistan has been a bigger matter for a longer time in Australia than in the US, in part because Australian troops have suffered many more casualties in Afghanistan than in Iraq. McGeough's speech is coruscating, and it uses Gen. McChrystal's report in a way I haven't seen applied anywhere else: as a radically honest reporting document, which in its very honesty reveals why its recommendations would not work out.

I mean these few samples to whet interest rather than to substitute for reading the presentation as a whole. Although he is tough on the Obama Administration, McGeough offers no support to the likes of Dick Cheney and his recent criticisms. As McGeough says in the final words of the speech, referring specifically to the Bush Administration's choice to switch manpower, money, and attention from Afghanistan to Iraq starting in late 2001:

"By the way, a recent American intelligence estimate put the insurgency's full-time fighting strength at at-least 25 000, up 25 per cent on the previous year. There should never have been a debate about how strong the insurgency is. They were on the run in 2001 - and they came back, only because they were allowed to."

Below and after the jump, other samples of his reasoning. But please do check it out. First, on the similarity between the Soviet and American wars.

"After eight years, Washington finds itself in the same position that the Soviet Union was in Year 8 of its occupation of Afghanistan, seemingly having learnt nothing from history - until McChrystal's bombshell assessment.

"I want to read from a defence official's letter dated August 17. He calls for an honest admission of failure after eight years, citing the squandering of huge material resources and considerable casualties and a failure to stabilise the country - militarily or politically. Most of the population has lost trust, because the campaign is bogged down and a strategic breakthrough is unlikely.

"The experience of the past years," he continues somberly, "clearly shows that the Afghan problem cannot be solved by military means only. We should decisively reject our illusions and undertake principally new steps, taking into account the lessons of the past, and the real situation in the country..."

"That might have been a note to General McChrystal as he prepared his report - but the date was August 17, 1987. And the author, Colonel K. Tsagalov, was addressing the then newly appointed Soviet defence minister, Dmitry Yazov."

On seeing the truth too late:

"In assessing the insurgency, McChrystal declares it, or them, to be sophisticated, organised, adaptive, determined and nuanced across all lines of operations ... with, he goes on, the capacity to exhaust the coalition and to prevent Kabul from governing the country. Much of his report leads to a conclusion that it is the very opposite that applies to Karzai and the Coalition's operations...

"Right now, I'm frightened for Afghanistan - I read McChrystal and I look back over 20 or more assignments in the country since just before 9/11 and my fear is that he has missed the boat.

"The Taliban is stronger, more violent and more in control than at any time since it was dislodged from Kabul in 2001. Foreign forces, mostly American, are dying at a greater rate and hundreds of billions of dollars are being squandered for no apparent return. Public and political support for the war has peaked and now is declining in the U.S. and in other coalition countries. As Hamid Karzai continues to demonstrate with his election fraud and his response to its exposure - the Kabul Government is rotten from the top....

"McChrystal, I fear, has arrived too late - for Afghanistan and for Washington... The general wants a blank cheque for a jalopy on which he offers no warranty."

Not having been in Afghanistan, I can't judge this first hand. But it is a powerful case. Also please consider this complementary argument by William S. Lind, which finds a similar tactics/strategy mismatch in McChrystal's report. Just as McGeough says that McChrystal has unintentionally made the case against deeper commitment in Afghanistan, Lind says that the report has unintentionally offered the Obama Administration a way out.