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Afghanistan's serious questions (part 2)

This installment focuses on some problems fighting this war from within the senior US military leadership.

Last modified: 15 Aug 2010 10:24
Photo by AFP

This installment focuses on some problems fighting this war from within the senior US military leadership.

Back in December 2009, I covered General McChrystal’s briefing on the Obama Afghan Surge inside a tent filled with senior US, Afghan, and ISAF officers at Kandahar Air Field.  

Since this week has been about reflection, a couple things stand out in my mind, starting with the awkwardly long moment of silence among the military’s top brass when McChrystal finished his presentation and asked the standing room only crowd if there were any questions on the future of the war (more on that in a moment).

A single McChrystal sound bite from that night has since proven memorable. “I believe that by next summer, the uplift of new forces will make a difference on the ground significantly,” McChrystal said.  

Too bad he’s not here anymore to see that what connotation “significant” turned out to mean. 

To make it clear: a 31 per cent spike in Afghan civilian casualties from January to June 2010, according to the UN.  More public animus against American and Coalition forces—now numbering over 130,000—regardless if they themselves did not commit the majority of those losses.  The deadliest year of coalition casualties since the war began 9 years ago—434 deaths according to the latest stats at icasualties.org.

That’s a rate of one coalition soldier killed for every 5 Afghan civilians by the Taliban in 2010—is that significant enough?

I won’t impugn General McChrystal as some others have in recent weeks, including the mother of Pat Tillman [Army Specialist Pat Tillman was a former NFL football player-turned special forces Ranger who volunteered for service in Afghanistan only to be killed by his own men.  The Army’s shameful handling of the investigations (read: cover up) was under the direction of none other than Stanley McChrystal, commander of Joint Special Operations Command in 2004).

In that same package I had also interviewed Canadian Brigadier General Daniel Menard, who at the time was the Commander of ISAF forces for Kandahar City, which would see the brunt of America’s surge in the spring-summer 2010.   Kandahar is Afghanistan’s second largest city, the heart of the Pashtun majority in this country, a historical Taliban stronghold, and the most difficult beat in this war.

On the Afghan surge, General Menard confidently added “The intent is to ensure that around [Kandahar] City, and when I say around the city I mean right from Arghandab to Maiwand, we create a ring of stability. This ring of stability is essential to be created by May next year (2010) so we have a true buffer zone of people that believe in something else than the insurgency.” 

Having gone on an embed to the Arghandab District of Kandahar last month, I’d say that’s a premonition that was about as far off as one could get.  Menard should either have fired his magic 8 ball, or get fired himself (Whoops!  That’s right, he did get fired in May, for two other reasons, including allegedly not keeping his hands off a) a junior subordinate and b) the trigger of his automatic weapon).

The shakeup of General officers has had a detectable effect on senior officers here in Afghanistan, and not in a good way.  Us journalists call it “the McChrystal effect.”  That is, highly decorated grown men of rank are scared out of their wits to speak with journalists—the misguided lesson many took away from the whole McChrystal kerfuffle that led to his termination.

For the junior warfighters in Regional Command South (the area where fighting is heaviest, including Kandahar and Helmand), it has proven musical chairs of rank-heavy command leadership and differing philosophies, coupled with the coming and goings of normal troop rotations (ranging from 7 months to 1 year).   Any wonder there is lack of a steady vision?

We may soon learn the latest iterations in US-Afghan strategy changes when General Petraeus breaks his vows of silence in a media blitz—starting with the for-domestic-consumption only “Meet the Press.”  Many will be keenly watching to see what change in strategy ISAF’s new Commander might proclaim, including hints that the Obama timeline for withdrawal in 2011 is just too premature.

In the backdrop of these PR efforts, there is perhaps one important move made by the Obama Administration that will affect the officer-heavy US Armed Forces, but only in the long run.  That was Secretary Gates pledge this week to drastically cut the amount of senior officers and generals from the Pentagons payroll—a real shock and awe for the officer lobby and military-industrial complex, corporations owing their existence to the legions of retired Generals who flock there to trade inside access to secure billion dollar contracts. 

There is something about the breed of today’s top military brass that makes them come off more like politician/cheerleaders as opposed to the cigar chomping Generals George Patton and Chesty Puller who told the truth, regardless of who it offended.

How a generation that grew up—or in some cases, served—in the Vietnam conflict—with all its lies, manipulations, and cover-ups to continue a losing conflict—could today replay those sordid events upon assuming power and rank is beyond me.

But what is more chilling is the effect it has on some (but not all) in the US military’s junior officer corps. What’s the right thing to do? Whatever order/choice/outcome/assignment seems most popular, likely to please, and lead to self-promotion.

It's gotten so noticeable on embeds that, though officers often volunteer to speak, I almost always prefer to seek out the real story from enlisted soldiers and senior Non Commissioned Officers—troops who seem to value truth and being honest in the eyes of their peers above political correctness and looking good on TV.

One recent afternoon on patrol sticks out in my mind.  I was walking alongside a young officer who remarked of his Afghan Police counterparts “I don’t trust them worth a shit—nothing more than Taliban with a badge.” 

Naturally, I asked him to share that assessment with our 220 million viewers who want to understand how the “partnering up” aspect of the U.S. mission is going. He readily agreed, but what I instead got 2 minutes later—which I refused to use—was “Oh, the Afghan Police have a lot of potential, they’re getting better, there are challenges we’re working to overcome.” 

A little posturing is one thing, but come on.  No wonder the bite that did make our story was given by an enlisted Army Sergeant named Ryan Gloyer, replayed on Jon Stewart’s Comedy Central. Why? My guess is because he gave a credible, albeit amusing opinion (though he did not know, backed by this video footage) about his experiences witnessing the Afghan Police use drugs.

If only that candor could be replayed at the senior levels, when briefing the leadership and American public who are entitled to make informed choices about which direction to head in the Afghan war.

If the senior officers here in Afghanistan continually get it wrong, use this country as a petri dish for counterinsurgency (protect the population from themselves, Hoorah!), or muddle through each year hoping a deus ex machina from Washington will intervene, its time to consider replacing them too without waiting for the Pentagon’s reforms, which will anyhow take years.  

Even though for Democrats it harkens the humiliating experience President Bush had to undergo when the Iraq adventure turned upside down (“Iraq Study Group”), perhaps in this context Congressman Frank Wolf’s calls for an “Afghan Study Group” is not such a bad idea.

Rather than advise the president on what’s working—and clearly the Afghan surge has not, in spite of Pollyannaish predictions I mentioned earlier—the American brass will anyhow wait until Washington think tanks, Congress, the White House, and outside study groups give them guidance on how to best mitigate America’s damages.

So let’s skip a few steps and have the Congress promote the civilian brain trust of this war to General rank.  We could even turn the sacked officers into civilian military contractors—you know, to advise their replacements on how to wear a uniform, perform award ceremonies, salute, march, etc.

A sarcastic stretch, I know, but if so many from today’s officers corps are going to more resemble wannabe policy wonks and future Congressmen (presidents?) in uniform, why use a disguise? 

It would be funny if only so many people weren’t dying.