McChrystal: Taliban Have Upper Hand; Violence, Corruption Threaten Election; British Gen. Pledges 40 Years in Afghanistan

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, head of US forces in Afghanistan, admitted in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Monday that the Taliban have gained the upper hand in fighting in Afghanistan. They are deploying small units that combine suicide bombings and ambushes, killing US troops at an unprecedented rate. McChrystal wants an addition 10,000 troops, with which to garrison the major western Pashtun city of Qandahar, a center of the Taliban insurgency.

McChrystal said that he only had about a year to turn things around in Afghanistan if the effort was not to lose the support of the US public. My own impression from lecturing around the country is that the American public is tired of wars, doesn’t see the point of the current ones, can’t any longer connect them to their security, and in view of the collapse of the economy thinks that there are better uses for the $4 bn. a month that the Afghanistan effort is costing. 54% of Americans now oppose the Afghanistan war, a big drop from May, according to a CNN poll. The Helmand operation in July, which caused casualties to spike, and awoke the public to the fact that there is a war, was probably implicated in its declining popularity. Some 58% of Britons in a recent poll said that the war is unwinnable. The likelihood is that a year is too short a time for the US military and NATO to turn the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan around, and that the fight for public opinion is likely to be lost well before that happens.

Last week, seven US and British troops were killed in a 24-hour period in Afghanistan. July was the bloodiest month of the war so far. Nearly 700 US troops have been killed in the Afghanistan operation since 2001.

Gen. James L. Jones, the National Security Adviser to President Barack Obama, said Sunday that the US would not be in Afghanistan for “ten years” as Australian security analyst David Kilcullen, now a staffer for Gen. McChrystal in Afghanistan, had suggested. Jones said that the US now had a new strategy in that country, which consisted of:

1. More security

2. economic development

3. better local governance

Jones denied that he had ruled out a further increase of US troops in Afghanistan.

The National Security Adviser said that the killing of Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud was ‘not a turning point’ but was good news for the war effort. The Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan, of whom Mahsud was a leader, give support to the Afghan Taliban just across the border. (Transcript at Real Clear Politics

The United Nations warns that an uptick in violence threatens citizens’ ability to participate in the upcoming presidential campaign. The province of Ghazni in the Pashtun south is so beset with guerrilla violence that candidates cannot campaign (shades of Iraq in 2005!) There are also allegations of stolen ballot forms intended to be deployed to steal the vote in some districts.

The Afghan newspaper Hasht Sobh reports in Dari Persian that a candidate for the provincial council of the northern province of Juzjan was robbed and briefly held hostage by Taliban while out campaigning. Juzjan is in the north of the country, which is generally quieter than the Pashtun south. But there are a few Taliban even in the north, and the ones in Kunduz again wounded a German soldier on Sunday.

The UN mission in Afghanistan also complains that the government of incumbent President Hamid Karzai is deploying state resources to swing the election to him. Other candidates haven’t been able to get on national television, and government trucks have been used for pro-Karzai campaigning.

International journalists in Afghanistan are frustrated, suspecting that the Afghan government has given orders to local officials to downplay guerrilla attacks and bombings and to give them a partial accounts from a heavily pro-government point of view. The allegation implies that these steps have been taken in order to cut down on bad press in advance of the August 20 presidential election.

In contrast to UN worries about security, the Dari Persian newspaper Hasht Sobh reports from Kabul that Gen. Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, was pledging that if you counted police, Afghan army forces, and US and NATO troops, the forces providing security for the August 20 presidential elections are 300,000 strong. He said that in warfare you can only typically commit one-third of your forces to actual fighting, but in peace-keeping you can deploy 100%. While this is technically perhaps true, in fact local police in Afghanistan are not for the most part up taking on the Taliban, even at checkpoints. The Afghan army is still poorly trained, relatively small, and lacks esprit de corps (there are also ethnic problems in its deployment). Most NATO forces are in the peaceful north and would be reluctant to come south where the fighting is. So if the question is whether campaigning and voting are safe in places in the Pashtun south like Qandahar and Ghazni, the answer is no.

Any plans by the US and NATO to negotiate with the Taliban have had to be postponed, since Taliban leaders have forbidden Afghans to vote and have threatened violence against polling stations.

Incoming head of the British Army, General Sir David Richards, is under fire from Labour Party cabinet ministers and by Tory and Lib-Dem politicians for his recent statement that Britain would be in Afghanistan for forty years . (He needs to have a trans-Atlantic talk with Gen. Jones.) To be fair, Gen. Richards appears to have been thinking of a long term nation-building effort rather than prolonged war-fighting, but the British public and much of its military is suffering from war fatigue, having lost hundreds of men in Iraq and Afghanistan for reasons that Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have never successfully articulated or in some cases for reasons that were patently false (as with Blair’s breathless announcement that Saddam could have hit Europe with WMD-tipped missiles within 45 minutes of giving the order.) Richards appears to feel that the British role in Basra, Iraq, was less successful than it could have been because the military became isolated from the Iraqis and the UK did not attempt nation-building efforts on a large scale in the Shiite south where its soldiers were patrolling.

Gen. Richards distinguished himself earlier in the decade in Afghanistan, where he cultivated Pashtun elders and negotiated with the Taliban, avoiding the American tactics of massive firepower and resort to special operations forces. You can only imagine what then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld thought of Gen. Richards. The British officer, born in Cairo into a military family, is an old Middle East hand of a sort lacking or sidelined in the United States until recently.

ITN has video of the “forty years” controversy:

The USG Open Source Center translated the response of the Afghan Taliban to Gen. Richards’ comments, which appeared in the Pashto-language Afghan Islamic Press on Saturday August 8, 2009, under the headline, “Taleban criticize UK general’s statement on Afghan operation.” Taliban commanders said that Richards was revealing the real scheme of the Western imperialists, which was a perpetual occupation of Afghanistan. And they turned the remark against the Karzai government, pointing out that it had never set a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces:

‘Considering the remarks by the incoming British head of the army as the real voice and intention of the British government, the Taleban Spokesman Qari Yosuf Ahmadi has told AIP: It is the fact that the Britons and other foreign countries are here to occupy this country, the statements by the incoming British chief of the general staff are the main voice and intention of all the Britons, in the one hand hopefully by the passage of every day the Britons and other foreigners are speaking about their intentions and on the other hand, we believe that the foreign invaders will never be able to occupy Afghanistan.”

Considering the statements by the incoming British chief of general staff as the long term intention for occupation, another Taleban spokesman Zabihollah Mojahed has told AIP: The Britons will never achieve their objective, the father of General David Richards has also died in this hope to capture Afghanistan, but no doubt that no one can occupy and colonize Afghanistan due to the Afghans’ Jehad and resistance. He has criticized the Afghan government and said that the Britons intend to stay in Afghanistan for 40 years, but so far the government and the parliament have not been able to set up timetable for the pullout of the foreigners, the latest statements by the incoming UK head of army indicates that the British forces would be involved for more than 40 years in Afghanistan.’

Whatever Gen. Richards’ intent, his remarks had the effect in Afghanistan of raising nationalist hackles and so were unwise, insofar as they gave the Taliban a propaganda victory.

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