At least Stanley McChrystal learned to avoid the “government in a box” that doomed him in Marjah. After several setbacks the US general has pushed back the time-line of Kandahar’s military operation against the Taliban, only this time as part of a PR campaign.
“It’s my personal assessment that it will be more deliberate than we probably communicated or than we thought earlier and communicated,” McChrystal said from NATO headquarters in Brussels. “And so I think it will take a number of months for this to play out. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I think it is more important we get it right than we get it fast.”
The target date of August’s end has been pushed into the fall. McChrystal admits, “It will happen more slowly than we had originally anticipated.” Maybe too slow.
Wise as it is to downplay expectations after the “bleeding ulcer” that is Marjah, significant damage has already been done by raising Kandahar before its fall. US commanders downplayed a “D-Day” style operation but otherwise declared August as the end date. The war’s fate has largely been sold on Kandahar, itself having been sold on Marjah.
"Kandahar is what we're looking into now," Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in March while visiting Kabul. "It is a cornerstone in reversing the momentum for the Taliban. Kandahar is the very heart of the insurgency."
With Marjah and Kandahar dragging, it’s impossible that Afghanistan as a whole won’t take longer than expected. And that’s the real issue - McChrystal, in reflection of the White House and Pentagon, is still underestimating Kandahar’s time-line and thus the entire war’s.
Naturally this overall shortcoming stems from a combination of missed estimates. Like most US officials, McChrystal’s statements operate on multiple levels. At the surface his admission that Afghan society is more complex than originally expected is laudable. At least he isn’t claiming he gets it.
McChrystal says of Marjah, "As we did it, we found that it's even more complex than we thought and so we need to educate ourselves from that and do it even better in Kandahar. I want to make sure we've got conditions shaped politically with the local leaders, with the people."
Unfortunately McChrystal, and thus Washington, still don’t act like they get it. While the power structure of Afghanistan is enormously complex, it’s disheartening nonetheless to hear Marjah underestimated in terms of time, government ability, and now culture. Similarly, it sounds comforting to hear McChrystal say, "We really want the people to understand and literally pull the operation towards them, as opposed to feeling they are being forced with something they didn't want.”
But McChrystal is stuck in the first place because America tried to force the operation on Kandaharis - he’s been forced to slow down because he tried to go too fast. US and NATO commanders swore they understood Marjah before they went in, as they did during the run up to Kandahar, yet here the situation stands.
And if Kandaharis don’t change their ideologies and tribal connections, as most won’t, how exactly is America ever supposed to “understand?” Even the Wall Street Journal, a leading cheerleader of the war, can’t avoid noting, “A fundamental problem in Kandahar, considered the birthplace of the Taliban movement, is that many Kandahar residents don't consider the Taliban to be enemies.”
This reality contributes to underestimating the Taliban and overestimating the government. The Taliban’s terror tactics may ultimately backfire if America restores a functioning central Afghan government, giving life to provinces and districts like a tree’s limbs and leaves. But without a political strategy in Kabul or villages like Marjah, where locals complain of outside governor Haji Abdul Zahir, the Taliban is likely to do to US strategy in Afghanistan what it’s doing in Marjah.
Though America is trying to funnel Afghans to Karzai in accordance with COIN, this strategy doesn’t work without a trustworthy central government. US commanders claim they haven’t lost faith in Karzai, but it’s easy to see why they would from the wedding in Nagahan village, Kandahar.
Despite rumors that a US air-strike, not the Taliban, bombed the wedding, the reaction from some locals couldn’t have made America happier. Mohammed Nabi Kako, purported commander of the local militia that NATO claims was the Taliban’s target, told reporters, “We will work harder against the Taliban in the future. Our morale is high, and our people’s morale is even higher.”
Except for one snag.
“The Americans, they promised me that ‘if you find the men, we will provide weapons and everything you need, vehicles, ammunition, radios,’ then nothing happened. When I asked why, they said, ‘You should go to your government and your government will support you.’ So we went to our government and they said, ‘You are not registered.’ So no one gave us even a single bullet.”
The Taliban will bleed America and NATO dry so long as Kabul remains this ineffective. On top of the hundreds of Afghans lost in 2010, NATO deaths have climbed passed 251 and easily pace last year’s total of 521. McChrystal deployed a common explanation from Pentagon officials: "It's likely that our casualties and violence will continue to rise particularly through the summer months. They could rise well into the fall.”
"We are pressuring the enemy, and they are reacting to that," he said.
While we recognize the partial truth of this explanation, it also does deadly injustice to the Taliban’s ability. The Taliban is reacting to weak political support in the West as much as Obama’s surge. Its plan is to increase activity - pressuring America politically to counteract its military pressure. The Taliban can lose momentum. America cannot. For now the Taliban has managed to retain momentum by stalling US forces and through the fortune of a persistently weak government.
This leads to one conclusion: Kandahar will take even longer than McChrystal estimates, meaning Afghanistan as a whole will take longer than anticipated.
Confusion is evident wherever one looks, but at the closest levels rifts expose US strategy in Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had addressed NATO before McChrystal, seemingly speaking rationally in admitting Western publics won’t tolerate a losing strategy. (Of course they already have and still are.) But Gates spoke of success across Afghanistan, not just one province.
Asked of Kandahar specifically, McChrystal replied, "I think it will be very clear by the end of the calendar year that the Kandahar operation is progressing. I don't know whether we'll know whether it is decisive."
Gates himself adds, “Kandahar and Helmand are important, but they are not the only provinces in Afghanistan that matter in terms of the outcome of this struggle.”
So how can Washington demonstrate concrete progress in the entire country before the December 2010 review if it takes the whole year and a substantial portion of Obama’s surge to create progress in one province? With some operations in Kandahar already delayed until fall, Gates and McChrystal’s new predictions don’t make more sense than the last.
Instead of August, now we’re supposed to believe October or November will cover the difference? Considering Marjah is taking three times longer than expected, Kandahar is very capable of doubling or tripling expectations. Furthermore, the operation was designed to secure Kandahar before parliamentary elections in September. Now that’s out the window.
Next year, though still suspect, would have sounded more plausible, but obviously that doesn’t fit with “progress by year’s end.”
The shortsightedness of US strategy is readily apparent. In order to keep hopes alive of a gradual withdrawal in July 2011, Washington continues exaggerating time-lines to meet a deadline doomed from the start. Obama is going to be squeezed harder in December than he was last fall, faced with a stalled war and, as Gates’ foresees, an unhappy public on the right and left. Making the correct decision will be difficult in this environment, to say the least, and doubtful to be quick either way.
Conversely, the best case scenario reveals the depth US strategy has sunk. If by chance Kandahar and Afghanistan as a whole show tangible signs of progress, the ground has already been laid to push back Obama’s July 2011 deadline. He’ll either freeze or add US troops before July 2011, not withdraw them, and the war will march on indefinitely.
"If we are making progress and it's clear that we have the right strategy then I think the people will be patient," Gates said.
And if Afghanistan bounces only to fall again, a toxic mixture of under and overestimates will create uncontrollable consequences in the region.