The removal of Gen Stanley McChrystal from the command of US forces in Afghanistan is indicative of far-reaching changes both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gen McChrystal was not an ordinary soldier and nor have we seen the last of him.
If he allowed the Rolling Stone magazine’s leftist Michael Hastings into his inner sanctum to produce a picture of frustration and despondency regarding the political guidance of the war in Afghanistan he did it to exit from his job because he knew that the war was un-winnable. He also knew that the most likely consequence would be his sacking which was not long in coming.
The change of command raises many questions about the outcome of the war in Afghanistan. From Pakistan’s perspective it is important to know firstly how the new US commander Gen Petraeus will conduct this war, secondly whether the removal of Gen McChrystal was the correct step at this time, and thirdly what are the implications for Pakistan.
Before attempting to answer how Gen Petraeus is likely to conduct the Afghan war let us see how the situation is on the ground today. The first thing to note is that the international coalition has had its highest casualty figures of any month during the war so far. In June, 103 soldiers died and 60 were from the US. Also, the Marja operation was a failure if judged by the yardstick of providing greater security to the population.
The international force failed to convince the population to help by providing intelligence about the Taliban. The refusal indicated that the population doubted that the US military was capable of protecting it in southern Afghanistan. Such results undermined the confidence of the Afghan government and would have created doubts in Gen McChrystal’s mind whether the much-hyped operation in Kandahar was even relevant. Kandahar is a bigger problem with a population of almost one million. It is known as the birthplace of the Taliban. Obtaining supremacy here would be difficult. Secondly, McChrystal’s forte lay in special night operations and execution of suspected Taliban. As head of the Joint Special Operations Command from 2003 to 2008, McChrystal led the secret war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Later, in Afghanistan, it led to mistakes like the botched night raid by special forces in Gardez that killed two government officials and three innocent women. It forced McChrystal to lay down new rules of engagement. One of these was that the forces would not retaliate unless the enemy took offensive action. This was quickly noted by the Taliban and used to cause higher numbers of US casualties.
What haunted McChrystal was his leaked report to the media that only a surge could save Afghanistan. This forced President Obama to agree to an additional 30,000 troops in Afghanistan when he was more interested in exiting. President Obama got out of this embarrassment by accepting the surge strategy for one year till July 2011. Review of the progress is due in December 2010.
How will the war be conducted after this change? Both McChrystal and Gen Petraeus are believers in the COIN strategy to defeat the jihadis. Success depends on subscribing to a nation-building approach that is time-consuming, expensive and calls for action by the local forces as foreign militaries do not have the credibility to fight such a war.
Also, it is open to question whether such a strategy will succeed in countries where the jihadi mindset has deep historical roots as is the case in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is obvious that matters in Afghanistan will become worse in the next six months. One reason for such an outcome is the insufficient numbers in the Afghan National Army and police personnel. Meanwhile, the credibility of the Afghan government is declining, and President Karzai’s peace overtures to the Taliban has taken away the rationale of a surge strategy.
What type of strategy will Gen Petraeus follow? The general is known to be a politically savvy person. He obliged President Bush by lobbying with Congress to adopt a surge policy in Iraq as the neoconservatives desired. It may be noted that Gen Petraeus succeeded in Iraq not as much by the surge as by reaching a secret deal with the Sunnis and promising them help in getting political space against the dominant Shia. This deal saved the Sunnis of Iraq from political marginalisation and physical extinction. They provided Petraeus the intelligence he needed to reduce the strength of the Shia and Al Qaeda.
McChrystal believed in implementing COIN tactically by relying on establishing numerical superiority in the target zone and creating new links for the government in areas cleared of the Taliban. He undertook targeted elimination of the militant leadership by special operations. Gen Petraeus on the other hand believes more in the strategic approach to COIN and will rely heavily on game-changers that have the capacity to deliver the Taliban. He would like to reach a deal with the top Taliban leadership in a future Afghanistan soon and that will give them a say in government.
In other words, he will rely on the same principles that provided him success in Iraq. He will also try and make a deal with the Taliban on power-sharing before the drawdown starts in July 2011. In order to convince the Taliban that it is in their own best interest to agree, he will resort to both violence and inducements. The first sign of such an approach will be the loosening up of the restrictive rules of engagement imposed by his predecessor.
Additionally, Gen Petraeus will be reliant on the Pakistani military for assistance. He has remarked that the Pakistan military is doing a good job. There is thus reason to believe that Pakistan has already begun to wield its influence on the Haqqani and Hekmatyar networks to make them cooperate with the US. Thus in the days to come expect Pakistan to be trumping India in Afghanistan, slowly creating space for the Taliban and shifting the war towards a better outcome.
What does it mean for President Obama? It is obvious that if Afghanistan has not stabilised before the next elections, President Obama will lose the latter. If Gen Petraeus and Gen Kayani deliver the Taliban then not only would Obama win the second term but Pakistan would have come out stronger and better from this war. The change of guard in Kabul is thus hugely significant.