By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Thursday, July 1, 2010
While the US media and world news agencies are focusing on the now-sacked Gen. Stanley McChrystal's contempt for his civilian bosses, what comes out starkly in the Rolling Stone article is the frank assessment about the war in Afghanistan.
What is significant in the 8,000-word piece on McChrystal by Michael Hastings are the references to the quagmire that Afghanistan has become for the US. In paragraph after paragraph, Hastings reminds readers of the chaos in Afghanistan and the war that has swayed decisively in favor of the Taleban.
"After nine years of war, the Taleban simply remain too strongly entrenched for the US military to openly attack," he writes, referring to the recent postponement of a long-planned push into Taleban stronghold Kandahar.
For quite some time now, people have been asking the all-important question: What is happening in Afghanistan? In the absence of any independent journalists in that war-torn country, there has been no clear idea. What has appeared in the American and Western press was misleading simply because those reports were based entirely on US Army handouts or guided tours. There are no embedded journalists on the other side and unless reporters and columnists gain access to sources in the Taleban, no clear picture will or can emerge.
Those who are following reports in Pakistan's Urdu media have a substantial idea of what is happening beyond the North West Frontier Province. However, the Urdu media sometimes resorts to hyperbole and exaggerates Taleban gains. But certainly they are closer to the truth than their American and Western counterparts.
From a layman's point of view, things are crystal clear (or "Chrystal" clear, as one American journal put it). How could an irregular army of 30,000-40,000 men sustain the war against the world's only superpower for nine long years, especially when they are faced with a coalition of the best armies in the world? The Taleban have no drones, no aircraft, no fighter jets, no Stinger missiles — nothing, yet they have been able to turn the tables on the mighty US Army.
So in the absence of any credible and objective reporting from the war front, the Rolling Stone interview at least provides a ringside view of what is actually happening in Afghanistan.
"Since McChrystal took over a year ago, the Afghan war became the exclusive property of the US ... with the opposition to the war already toppling the Dutch government, forcing the resignation of Germany's president and sparking both Canada and The Netherlands to announce the withdrawal of their 4,500 troops ... and now the French are going all wobbly," writes Hastings.
It was in March 2009 that US President Barack Obama ordered another 21,000 troops to Kabul. "We have a clear and focused goal: To disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan," he said at the time. He appointed McChrystal as the US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, replacing Gen. David McKiernan.
According to Hastings, McChrystal was from the start determined to place his personal stamp on Afghanistan — to use it as a laboratory for a controversial military strategy known as counterinsurgency.
"COIN, as the theory is known, is the new gospel of the Pentagon brass, a doctrine that attempts to square the military's preference for high-tech violence with the demands of fighting protracted wars in failed states. COIN calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation's government."
It was US Vice President Joe Biden who argued against a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, saying it would plunge America into a military quagmire without weakening international terrorist networks.
Hastings quotes Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel and leading critic of counterinsurgency, as saying that the entire COIN strategy was a fraud inflicted on the American people. "The idea that the United States is going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense," Macgregor is quoted as saying in the article.
Hastings points out that the prospect for any kind of success in Afghanistan looks bleak and then reels off a startling statistic.
"In June, the death toll for US troops passed 1,000, and the number of improvised explosive devices has doubled. Spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the fifth-poorest country on earth has failed to win over the civilian population, whose attitude toward US troops ranges from intensely wary to openly hostile."
Also this month, Afghanistan officially outpaced Vietnam as the longest war in American history. "And Obama has now quietly begun to back away from the deadline he set for withdrawing US troops in July of next year. The president finds himself stuck in something even more insane than a quagmire," observes Hastings.
It is now official that the number of innocent people killed by US-led coalition forces is in the hundreds.
"In the first four months of this year, US and NATO troops killed some 90 civilians, up 76 percent from the same period in 2009 — a record that has created tremendous resentment among the very population that counterinsurgency theory is intent on winning over. In February, a US Special Forces night raid ended in the deaths of two pregnant Afghan women and allegations of a cover-up, and in April protests erupted in Kandahar after US forces accidentally shot up a bus, killing five Afghans," writes Hastings and then quotes McChrystal as saying: "We've shot an amazing number of people."
A few lines later, McChrystal goes on to confess that you can't kill your way out of Afghanistan. "The Russians killed one million Afghans, and that didn't work," he is quoted as telling Hastings.
Despite all this bad news, the Rolling Stone article indicates that facts on the ground offer little deterrent to a military determined to stay the course. "Even those closest to McChrystal knew that the rising anti-war sentiment at home doesn't begin to reflect how deeply (messed) up things are in Afghanistan. If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular," a senior adviser to McChrystal tells the interviewer.
"Winning, it would seem, is not really possible in Afghanistan," concludes Hastings.