Beyond the McChrystal, Petraeus drama: a counterinsurgency reality check

Given all the hurdles to a successful counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, it is not too early for Petraeus and Washington to begin thinking about Plan B.

The drama surrounding the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal is understandably centered on the juicy clash of personalities: The elite, handpicked commander undone by careless comments to a freelance journalist working for Rolling Stone; the president forced to reassert his authority as commander in chief while prosecuting a difficult war amid flagging public support and a host of domestic crises; the newly installed general, renowned for his past exploits, sent into the fire once again to turn around a troubled campaign.

However, focusing on the personalities obscures the risks that continue to face US strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the need to consider alternative strategies that mitigate them.

President Obama made a point of stating that General McChrystal’s departure is not linked to any change of heart concerning the direction of the Afghan campaign. “I do not make this decision based on any difference in policy with General McChrystal, as we are in full agreement about our strategy,” he said. “Let me say to the American people, this is a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy.”

And by nominating Gen. David Petraeus to continue counterinsurgency command, the president confirmed his support for the current military strategy. It’s a strategy that, even under the most optimistic scenarios, could prove costly in money and manpower and slow to demonstrate significant results.

To be sure, General Petraeus’s successful imposition of relative stability in Iraq over the course of 2007-08 offers a powerful testament to his skills. But a proven military leader is not necessarily the decisive factor in the outcome of this war. The American strategy in Afghanistan remains racked by troubling paradoxes that are difficult for any commander to surmount:

• The counterinsurgency approach is known to be “messy and slow,” but now has only one year left to succeed before a prescheduled troop withdrawal begins.

• The strategy puts a premium on collaboration between military and political efforts, but the relationship between the top military commanders and the top diplomats has apparently been dysfunctional for quite some time.

• It calls for a “surge” of civilian governance and development experts that probably exceeds what the US government can realistically provide.

• It requires allies to help share the heavy burden, but NATO contributions are shrinking (Canada and the Netherlands, two of the most stalwart allied contributors, are preparing to withdraw their troops in a matter of months).

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s an even deeper set of problems to consider:

• The United States is supporting a centralized state solution to a country with a tradition of decentralized governance.

• It is trying to foster the legitimacy and authority of a host government mainly known for its corruption and fecklessness.

• It is expending significant efforts attempting to build up a professional national Afghan army and police force, while also cultivating independent local militias to combat the Taliban.

• It relies on Pakistan to take strong complementary actions against the Taliban and other militant groups, but the Pakistani security establishment still regards some of these groups as strategic partners.

As he did in Iraq, Petraeus will likely bring many trusted military and civilian advisers with him to Kabul to conduct a new assessment of the situation. One can imagine that they will identify all of these problems. But in this case, knowing is not half the battle.

The biggest hurdles are not likely to change regardless of which general is in charge.

US commanders and diplomats can coax, cajole, and threaten President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan leaders to govern effectively and curtail rampant corruption, but ultimately the Afghans have to decide for themselves that they want to do it. The US can train Afghan soldiers and police, but it cannot guarantee that they will put themselves on the line for their country. America can help build a central government, but only Afghans can choose whether they will be loyal to it. American commanders and diplomats can offer all kinds of incentives to Pakistan to crack down on the Taliban havens within its borders, but only Pakistan can decide whether it will actually pursue such efforts with much determination.

No matter who is in charge, then, success or failure in Afghanistan rides on factors beyond the commander’s control.

Though counterinsurgency may be the best way to secure US interests in South and Central Asia, in this case it assumes troubling levels of strategic risk. While many pundits suggest that this particular command change minimizes the disruption to ongoing military operations, this far higher order of risk is inherent to the strategy.

To be sure, there is still a distinct possibility that the US will succeed in stabilizing Afghanistan, thereby enabling an orderly withdrawal of most US forces in the not too distant future. The situation in Iraq in early 2007 appeared similarly bleak before a fortuitous confluence of events produced a dramatic security turnaround. However, the appointment of a new commander does not fundamentally alter the rather grim dynamics working against the current strategy. Given all these considerations, it is not too early to begin thinking about what Plan B looks like.

Brian Burton is the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan national security think tank in Washington.

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