Politics & Policy

This Mission Is Not McChrystal Clear

Our troops are not in Afghanistan for a social experiment.

Deep down, national-security conservatives know President Obama will not wage a decisive war against America’s enemies in Afghanistan. They also know that the young men and women we already have there are sitting ducks. Ralph Peters notes that our commanders, obsessed with avoiding civilian casualties, have imposed mind-boggling rules of engagement (ROE) on our forces, compelling them to retreat from contact with the enemy and denying them resort to overwhelming force — including the denial of artillery and air cover when they are under siege. As the Washington Examiner’s Byron York recently reported, even some Afghans are telling our commanders to “stop being so fussy . . . and kill the enemy.”

Yet the national-security Right is urging that we up the ante and put another 40,000 American lives at risk in this hostile theater, under this commander in chief and the same military leadership that dreamed up the ROE. Why? To attempt, under the rubric of “counterinsurgency,” the unlikeliest of social-engineering experiments: bringing big, modern, collectivist, secular government to a segmented, corrupt, tribal Islamic society — a society that has been at war with itself for three dozen years, which is to say, since the first futile effort to impose big, modern, collectivist, secular government ran smack into Afghanistan’s tribal Islamic ways.

#ad#Many on the right who urge the troop escalation want no part of the experiment. But they are hallucinating, too. They have convinced themselves that just because they would take the fight to our enemies, Barack Obama also is inclined to do so: the same Barack Obama who has decried American “militarism” since he was a Columbia undergrad, whose top foreign-policy priority has been to make nice with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and who would have to overcome every fiber of his blame-America-first being to wage the war that needs to be waged. It is foolish to believe that, and it would be much worse than foolish to put American lives at risk based on that belief.

Obama plainly does not want to deploy more troops. He has boxed himself in, though, by following the Democratic practice of politicizing our national security. Though it is doubtful that Obama would see any military action in pursuit of American interests as righteous, his campaign hyped Afghanistan as the good war, the “war of necessity”– the better to denigrate Iraq as the bad war, the “war of choice.” He compounded the problem in March when, in the course of adding 21,000 troops to the Afghanistan mission, he couldn’t resist sniping at his predecessor, saying President Bush had turned a deaf ear to our commanders, who had been “clear about the resources they need.” So now Obama finds himself presiding over the good war of necessity with a commander — the commander he chose — who is quite clear that he needs 40,000 more troops.

That commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is a highly decorated veteran with impressive combat-command experience. He is also a progressive big-thinker on geopolitics, having been a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Harvard’s Kennedy School. One perceives more of the academic than the warrior in his startling white paper proposal for what is labeled a “counterinsurgency” campaign.

The proposal was strategically leaked to the Washington Post last week. The president’s knees are buckling as opportunistic politics give way to political accountability. The general has seen many a former courtier thrown under Obama’s bus and has no intention of finding tire tracks across his camouflage. McChrystal knows a commander’s declaration of what the mission requires carries enormous weight — for many of my friends on the right, it’s game, set, and match. With McChrystal having made public his expert assessment of what the mission demands, the president, a military novice, must either give it to him or be blamed for the ensuing failure.

The mission, though, must be the one the commander has been given by his civilian superiors, who answer to the American people. It is not the commander’s place to redefine the mission as something the American people never authorized and never would. But that is what McChrystal is endeavoring to do. He describes his plan as “revolutionary.” He’s sure got that right: The proposal would radically alter the understanding most Americans have about why we are in Afghanistan — as he puts it, his proposal would “redefine the nature of the fight.”


To be sure, a general’s military judgments are owed great deference, particularly by those of us without military backgrounds. But labeling McChrystal’s proposal a “military strategy” doesn’t make it one, and this proposal happens to be short on combat planning and long on sociological theory. On the latter, we don’t owe him any more deference than we do the ineffable Joe Biden.

#page#Up until now, one might have thought our goal in going to war in Afghanistan was to vanquish al-Qaeda, its jihadist affiliates, and the Taliban — the de facto Afghan government we toppled because it facilitated al-Qaeda’s terrorist strikes against the United States from 1998 through 9/11. That certainly is the mission contemplated by the use-of-force resolution Congress passed in September 2001. President Obama seemed to grasp this back in March when he assured Americans that defeating al-Qaeda was his purpose in Afghanistan (and in Pakistan as well).

But that is not General McChrystal’s purpose. In fact, he does not even think this is America’s war. “This is their war,” the general says of the Afghans. “This conflict and country are [theirs] to win — not mine.” And because we are in Afghanistan primarily to make life better for the Afghans, he argues, “our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces; our objective must be the population.” This, he writes, is a “war of ideas” in which “the key to changing [the Afghans’] perceptions lies in changing the underlying truths.” Good luck with that.

The main underlying truth in this conflict is Islam, a matter McChrystal barely mentions in his 60 pages of politically correct prose. The inconvenient truths are: that the population of Afghanistan is 99.5 percent Muslim; that the Afghans have longstanding alliances with our jihadist enemies, who helped them drive the Soviets out of their country in 1989 after a decade of brutal occupation; that even though a majority of Afghans does not want the Taliban back in power, the group still enjoys considerable support among a population that was largely content to live under its rule; that the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda enjoy enthusiastic support from Pakistan, where the United States is despised and where Sunni Islamism is seen as a useful weapon against India and Iran, which is why Pakistan created the Taliban in the first place. And even if McChrystal is correct that most Afghans do not oppose our presence in their country, many of them do, and many more non-Afghan Muslims view us as an occupying infidel force.

#ad#When McChrystal does get around to Islam, on page 38 of his opus, he botches it:

A more forceful and offensive StratCom approach must be devised whereby [the insurgents] are exposed continually for their cultural and religious violations, anti-Islamic and indiscriminate use of violence and terror, and by concentrating on their vulnerabilities. These include their causing of the majority of civilian casualties, attacks on education, development projects, and government institutions, and flagrant contravention of the principles of the Koran. These vulnerabilities must be expressed in a manner that exploits the cultural and ideological separation of the [insurgents] from the vast majority of the Afghan population.

This remarkable passage comes after McChrystal repeatedly cautions readers that “We must never confuse the situation as it stands with the one we desire.” He should take his own advice.

There is considerable debate in Islamic circles about whether the Islamists’ rigid construction of sharia contravenes “the principles of the Koran.” Many Muslims claim these principles have been tempered by centuries of practice and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). To claim, however, that the Taliban are “flagrantly” in violation of Islamic principles, and that they will judged to be so by other Muslims, is wishful thinking. So is the suggestion that Afghan Muslims, culturally and ideologically, have more in common with us than with than with the Afghan Muslims we are fighting. General McChrystal should know that global polls show that 75 percent of Muslims want “to keep Western values out of Islamic countries” and endorse “a strict application of sharia,” which includes such time-honored penalties as death for apostasy and stoning for adultery.

Moreover, it is neither “indiscriminate” nor “anti-Islamic” to “use . . . violence and terror” against infidels who take up arms against Muslims and who attempt to sow the seeds of Western governance in Islamic countries. In the days following 9/11, even after condemning al-Qaeda’s mass-murder of innocent civilians, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi issued a fatwa forbidding Muslims to cooperate with the United States in Afghanistan. The sheikh subsequently declared that Muslims enlisted in the American military should refuse to participate in U.S. operations in Islamic countries. In 2004, he added that Muslims should attack occupying American troops in Iraq. If we combine the huge international audience of his weekly al-Jezeera television program and his Islam Online cyber-venture, Qaradawi is the most influential Sunni cleric in the world. He is also the chief theoretician of the world’s most influential Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood (the same Muslim Brotherhood President Obama insisted on inviting to his ballyhooed speech in Cairo this past spring). Given a choice between Qaradawi and McChrystal, many Muslims, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, are going with Qaradawi.

When McChrystal is not getting Islam hopelessly wrong, he makes the fatal error of ignoring it — a mistake that has characterized U.S. strategic thinking for at least two decades. Thus he asserts, for example, that “the insurgents have two primary objectives: controlling the Afghan people and breaking the coalition’s will” — as if there were no rationale (besides the unremarkable tyrannical impulse) for “the insurgents” to behave this way. But the Taliban and its allies want to control the Afghan people in order to reinstitute what they see as the purified Islam of Mohammed’s Companions. They are not just “insurgents,” they are jihadists who see themselves as pursuing a divine commandment to impose Allah’s law. In a great many cases, they are doing so in their own country, and with the support and respect of many of their countrymen.

So while McChrystal is correct that a majority of Afghans (especially those who practice more moderate strains of Sufi Islam) rejects the Taliban, a sizable minority sympathizes. Even if that were not so, rejecting the Taliban’s barbarous methods and austere agenda hardly means that Afghans reject Islamism more generally. And even less does it mean that most Afghans will come to see themselves as more aligned with Americans than with our enemies, their fellow Afghan Muslims. In Islam, there is endless intramural rivalry and discord; still, that is put aside in conflicts with non-believers — the unity of the umma, the global Muslim nation, takes precedence.


What would bring Afghanistan’s tribal, Islamic population over to our side? Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that McChrystal is right and Afghans uniformly see the Taliban as their tormentors. Are we going to kill or capture all the Taliban? No: not our job; according to General McChrystal, we’re there to convince the Afghans that doing so is their job.

#page#Given all the concern on the right that abandoning Afghanistan would be a propaganda coup for America’s enemies, shouldn’t this be something of an eye-opener? America’s commander in the theater doesn’t think that we’re in Afhganistan to fight our enemies. We are there, he says, to train Afghans to fight America’s enemies. The McChrystal plan anticipates that we will do precisely what McChrystal’s supporters on the right say we must not do: leave Afghanistan with the Taliban and al-Qaeda still causing trouble. All the McChrystal plan does is put that day off for a couple of years, until the Afghan army and police force purportedly are up to the task of doing what we haven’t done. It’s their war, not ours.

So if it’s not our war and we’re not focused on workaday war-making — things like “seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces” — what should we be doing in Afghanistan? Well, for one thing, General McChrystal says we should be fostering the “development and use of indigenous narratives to tap into the wider cultural pulse of Afghanistan.” Pretty hip for a military objective. But perhaps not as trendy our primary task: McChrystal says we’ve sent our soldiers to address “a crisis of confidence among Afghans — in both their government and the international community.” How’s that work?

First we have to stop being so “pre-occupied with protection of our own forces.” All that fighting we’ve been doing amounts to the trivial pursuit of “tactical wins that cause civilian casualties or unnecessary collateral damage.” We’ve been too distant “physically and psychologically . . . from the people we seek to protect.” We’ve got to get with it and understand that “security may not come from the barrel of a gun. Better force protection may be counterintuitive; it might come from less armor and less distance from the population.”

#ad#That may fly at the Kennedy School, and it would make a fine cover essay for Foreign Affairs. It is likely to prove less persuasive to the families of our young men and women in uniform. They read the newspapers, and to them it sure must seem that much of this population that so enthralls McChrystal is working with, and selling our troops out to, the Taliban.

What, in any event, would McChrystal have us do once we get up close and personal with the Afghans? The general posits that, with our “improved and evolved level of understanding,” we can build the Afghans a bigger, better central government: one that is accountable, is able to “raise revenue,” provides better services, takes responsibility for national security, and is a positive force in the lives of remote tribal enclaves. McChrystal grants that this is an uphill climb. “The recent Presidential and Provincial Council elections” — the ones that the incumbents attempted to steal — were “far from perfect,” and Afghanistan’s maze of tribal constituents “have traditionally sought a degree of independence from the central government.” Sounding more like a Democratic strategist than a general in command of a hot war, McChrystal speculates that the country will be transformed by the pioneering “National Solidarity Program,” to say nothing of the “Afghan Social Outreach Program.” Can health-care reform be far behind?

In post-9/11 America, Islam is a “religion of peace,” and that’s that. We’ve learned to say and think nothing further on the subject. What causes terrorism and drives terrorist recruitment is Abu Ghraib, or Gitmo, or unemployment, or anything other than Islam. It might be worth considering a little modern Islamic history. Afghanistan was slow to radicalize. After the Anglo-Afghan wars of the 19th century, Britain was content to influence it but had no appetite to occupy it. Its interaction with the West was minimal. By contrast, Islamism grew like wildfire in what became Egypt and Pakistan. Those Muslim territories had been occupied by Western powers that attempted to plant Western culture, institutions, and governance. This provoked virulent resistance from devout Muslims, who saw the effort — well-meaning or not — as an existential threat to their civilization. Islamism was spawned in the universities but rapidly became a mass movement.

Afghanistan was not radicalized until the mid-Seventies when the imposition of another Western idea — Marxism — was attempted. This sparked an Islamist revolt that sprang first out of Kabul University. The movement metastasized after the 1979 Soviet invasion, which prompted American and Saudi funding of the mujahideen (to the tune of $6 billion), much of which went to the most extreme Islamist elements, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — the warlord and former engineering student who was a key ally of Osama bin Laden, who would later become Afghan prime minister, and who to this day fights alongside al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

This history should give us pause. Let’s say one were inclined to think, as General McChrystal is inclined to think, (a) that we could transform Afghanistan into something resembling a modern social democracy, complete with vibrant educational programs, and (b) that it is appropriate to make doing so the job of the United States military. How is that going to improve American national security against Islamist terror? To the contrary, the likelihood is that the effort will catalyze Islamism. It won’t matter that we think we are helping; we will be perceived by millions in the Muslim world, including in Afghanistan, as infidel occupiers who are trying to undermine Islamic culture. And the opposition’s epicenter will be the very schools we are encouraging the Afghans and our other allies — like the Saudis — to build. Have you seen what Saudi education is like in Virginia? What do you suppose these allies of ours are teaching in Kandahar?

We have only one military mission in Afghanistan, and it is not to protect the Afghan population, who are not properly our concern so long as they don’t allow their country to be a launching pad for attacks on the United States. Our troops are in Afghanistan because we, not the Afghans, are in a war to destroy al-Qaeda and its enablers — the Taliban, Hekmatyar, and the Haqqani network, all of which draw support from Pakistan. Obviously, we should always try to avoid civilian casualties in achieving our objectives. But this is a war, and our objectives take precedence. Afghan and Pakistani civilians will best be protected if we use the back-breaking force necessary to achieve our objectives as swiftly as possible; American civilians and troops will best be protected by making clear that if America is threatened again our troops will be back again — and not to bring hope and change.

A well-meaning social experiment masquerading as a counterinsurgency — oblivious to the unintended downsides and bent on delegating our counterterrorism work to the Afghans a couple of years hence — is not a good reason to have any troops in Afghanistan, much less to send in 40,000 more. The nice, friendly war — in which we pretend that we love the wonderful native people, have a quarrel solely with their wayward fringe, fight only until our enemies scatter but not until they are defeated, and define success (rather than victory) by how much we improve life for the indigenous population — is a delusion. If we’re not up for the real thing, we should leave Afghanistan now. Those who worry that we would give al-Qaeda a huge propaganda victory should consider that we’re already giving them one by hamstringing our warriors and exhibiting a failure of will.

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