March 5, 2010

McChrystal’s Kandahar Roadblock

As if answering to our signal, the man driving America’s military train in Afghanistan has blown his horn. He’s seeing the same thing as we are so an alarm was expected. General McChrystal has watched his moderately successful military operation in Marjah stymied by hesitant locals and the growing chasm between Washington and Kabul.

He must not like what he’s seeing from Kabul either.

In a joint interview with Reuters and the New York Times, McChrystal warns that the Taliban, “feed upon the lack of legitimacy of the government of Afghanistan. They always come back to the idea that the government is corrupt. To the degree that it is one of the causes of the insurgency, it worries me more than the insurgency itself.”

In essence, the insurgency is impossible to defeat if President Hamid Karzai fails to reform Afghanistan’s government.

“We can fight the insurgency, we can defeat the forces of the insurgency, the ground forces and whatnot,” says McChrystal. “But if we don't have effective governance, credible governance, then you don't defeat the cause of the insurgency."

Textbook counterinsurgency from the Army handbook, but since he has also made clear that US and Afghans minds are his real objective, words by themselves are meaningless. As with repeated civilian casualties and redundant apologies, deeds speak truer. Generalship is an occupation of action and McChrystal must prove his words.

"Our number one objective may be to put corruption front and center,” McChrystal says. “I actually think we are making progress against corruption, albeit very slow progress.”

McChrystal is using the words “corruption” and “progress” in a broad sense, possibly for intentional ambiguity. Progress is very slow indeed in light of Karzai’s recent political moves. US officials have protested or privately disapproved the Election Complaints Commission grab, media ban, and Taliban reconciliation.

But one man comes close to eclipsing these obstacles, the man who may hold the key of Kandahar’s fate and by extension Afghanistan’s.

Kandahar won’t be an easy fight no matter what happens in Kabul. Good or poor governance, the Taliban won’t abandon Kandahar without a hard fight like Marjah. Its historical base and local protection is wider, its bases more numerous, its control more ingrained. US generals are predicting a tough fight and they’re going to get it.

“I think General McChrystal’s been pretty clear that the focus will turn to Kandahar,” Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen told reporters at the Naval Air Station North Island. “His main effort is really in the south, and Kandahar will be next.”

Roughly eight times larger than Marjah with 468,000 people, Kandahar is surrounded by towns and villages that push the total population of the area above 1 million. US and NATO troops quickly grew fond of their numerical superiority compared to the local population, not insurgents, in Marjah.

Does this mean 100,000 troops will be needed for Kandahar?

Such a figure may well be ideal, but we can only say for certain that America and NATO will need every advantage they can find. President Obama cannot afford to have the operation drag past his July 2011 deadline if Kandahar is billed as the final fight.

This is why General Petraeus bestowed nearly unlimited power on McChrystal, who now controls every US troop in Afghanistan except a select guard of Special Ops that transports prisoners. They will remain under Petraeus’s command.

Otherwise McChrystal now has control of Marine elements and Special Operations forces, which apparently he lacked before. These powers must be something special.

"This is a significant development,” said Petraeus. “It will provide General McChrystal authorities that I never had as the commander in Iraq - though I wish I had them - and that his predecessors never had in Afghanistan either.”

It seems ideal that McChrystal holds authority of all US soldiers in Afghanistan. The worry is relying too much on Special Ops, which McChrystal commanded before transferring to Afghanistan. Just as US and UK forces hunted Taliban commanders around Marjah in the month preceding Operation Moshtarak, so too will they (along with the Canadians) silently enter the fields around Kandahar.

If the primarily operation is planned for late spring, the decapitation campaign is likely underway already. In fact the entire Kandahar campaign might fly in under the radar. Unlike Marjah, operations might be deep in progress by the time the American public has been given a formal announcement.

"There won't be a seminal D-Day," said Army Brig. Gen. Ben Hodges, deputy commander of Regional Command South. "It will be a more gradual, almost squeezing out of the enemy.”

Then Hodges hits the wall: “It really starts with the president recognizing that he has to have a governor for Kandahar province that can be the leader and can get the tribes and all the different power brokers lined up in such a way that a national government authority can run things there in Kandahar.”

Enter Ahmad Wali Karzai, current chief of the Kandahar provincial council and half-brother to President Hamid Karzai. Wali has been accused of being on the CIA payroll while double-timing on the Afghan drug trade. His whole organization is said to be highly corrupt and near the top of the opium chain.

“If you don't change the Kandahar leadership, the (military) operation will not help," said Khalid Pashtoon, a member of parliament from Kandahar. “The Americans should realize this."

Yesterday we compared Obama’s surge to two rails, political and military, that are running away from each other. Having started wide apart Obama needed to bring them closer, but this hasn’t been the case. We had also saved Wali for his own analysis in Kandahar - and McChrystal provided the perfect spotlight.

Wali, if the rumors are even close to true, pushes Obama’s political strategy further away from McChrystal’s military campaign.

For starters Bismullah Kammawie, director general of Afghanistan's customs, said corruption at the notorious Spin Boldak border crossing in Kandahar is now "total.” A similar fate can be penciled in for police training, schools and roads, and alternative crops.

But unlike Karzai’s own power games which occur outside of Marjah, his brother poses a direct military obstacle in the Kandahar campaign. Whereas Marjah’s military operations had no local politics to deal with, the political and military rails might cross in Kandahar. Wali might need to go, but given his brother’s recent actions that progress doesn’t seem likely.

McChrystal will have to find a way around both Karzais if Obama doesn’t persuade Hamid to remove his brother or minimize his influence. That will cost time Obama doesn’t have.


  1. What do you think will happen if Obama doesn't make it?

  2. He'll stay - he has no choice. He can't start pulling out troops in the middle of a Kandahar campaign, especially when Canada, the Netherlands, and maybe Australia will bail out by 2011. Withdrawal appears too complicated for Obama to execute, especially because the White House and Pentagon refuse reconciliation with the Taliban. Now who knows how backsliding on his deadline will play out in the 2012 election. Voters could, for some reason, give him time to "finish the war," or they could toss him out if he gets stuck deeper in Afghanistan. If you're an Obama supporter what would you do?

  3. I voted for him as an Independent so he's lost my vote. The only way I would vote for him again if he stays in Afghanistan is if he passes a good health care bill and holds an investigation into the Iraq war. I figure he'll get health care done and nothing else, not enough for everything he promised.

  4. Obama invented a new saying - "The devil is in the expectations."