Update: U.S. President Barack Obama relieved Gen. Stanley McChrystal of his post as top U.S. commander in Afghanistan in Wednesday, replacing him with Gen. David Petraeus. Obama described his decision as a “a change in personnel but … not a change in policy.” Before the decision was made, Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network filed this dispatch from Kabul arguing that whoever’s in charge, it’s that policy that needs changing.
Great, General, that was really helpful! The austere, Bud Light Lime-only, non-plus-ultra ‘Jedi’ commander has spoken to the Rolling Stone, him and his population-centric "handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs" (and gay-haters, as the author of the famous Rolling Stone story cautiously implies), badmouthing people with whom they should be working. The Boss is "angry," says the BBC. Result: Everyone within the Beltway, i.e. the whole world, is speculating whether The General will be MacArthured. Think tankers are already demanding his head. That seems to be what really what matters. Not Afghanistan.
The Boss should be angry — or better: concerned — about something else: here, on the ground, things are on fire. Violence is even increasing, ‘attributable,’ as the latest UN report on Afghanistan puts it, "to an increase of military operations in the southern region during the first quarter of 2010" but also to the Taliban’s counter-surge. A government lacking legitimacy by half-way decent elections, apparently concerned mainly for their families’ and friends’ business interests and even considering an unprincipled embrace of the insurgent leaders in order to cling to power, is creating fears of an all-Pashtun coalition, deepening the ethnic divide, acutely risking the alienation of half of the population for good while, by the same action, strengthening warlord rule in the North even further. The U.S. military is happily looking forward to the withdrawal of the ‘sissy Dutch’ and Canadians so that they can ‘kick ass’ and dismantle all the cautiously built respect with local tribal leaders who straddle the blurred frontline between ‘us and them.’ And finally, Pakistan leading the U.S. and its Kabul ally by the nose — having made clear that a political settlement will only happen on ISI terms.
Actually, from the start, it didn’t look like the brilliant new U.S. strategy was working. Has anyone, including The General, really expected that he could bomb and black-op the Taliban to shreds, in Marjah, that "bleeding ulcer," Kandahar or elsewhere while there still is an unchanged, predatory government in place in the provinces? (Probably they did, considering their successes in Ramadi and Falluja.) With figures at the top of the government who are regularly visited by the top-most U.S. military and civilians or bolstered with contracts worth millions, while there is full knowledge (not only since the latest congressional report, ‘Warlord, Inc.’) that are involved in all kinds of stuff that undermines the ‘nation-building’ which, according to some, the US is still attempting in Afghanistan? Remember all the media stories from Uruzgan, Spin Boldak, Kandahar and the forgotten one from Kunduz (only mentioned so that we do not forget that this is not only about the south).
This strategy has been too little too late from the start. Hearts and minds were lost long ago across Afghanistan and they cannot be won back by throwing money at them. See the — really — brilliant Andrew Wilder, deservingly quoted in the Rolling Stone story: "A tsunami of cash fuels corruption, delegitimizes the government and creates an environment where we’re picking winners and losers." And The General’s strategy has another major flaw: It is dominated by the military. It "cannot by itself create governance reform," as CFR’s Stephen Biddle puts it in the same Rolling Stone story. Remember that also outgoing Kai Eide had warned against a ‘militarization’ of ‘our’ effort in Afghanistan?
For most Afghans who usually do not read Newsweek or the Rolling Stone, The General was just another general saying what other generals have said before. What reason could they have that he would actually change things? Yes, the percentage of civilian casualties caused by the NATO troops went down but still The General tells his black ops guys, as the Rolling Stone relates, "[y]ou better be out there hitting four or five targets tonight" but that he also will "have to scold you in the morning for it." Only joking?
At the same time, all his Special Forces and Local Defence militias, not to mention the ANA and ANP, are not able to save the lives of those who are supposed to be building on the military ‘successes’: Kandahar’s deputy mayor Azizullah Yarmal, Abdul Majid Babai the head of the province’s culture and information department, Abdul Jabbar the district governor of Arghandab and Haji Abdul Hai an Abdul Rahman Tokhi the tribal elders — all killed in the past few months. Not to talk about Matiullah Qate the provincial police chief killed by the thugs of a guy who calls himself the ‘Nancy Pelosi of Kandahar’ and the uncounted other Afghans. In Kabul, committed Afghans are discussing whether they should pack their bags again and leave. Even in the North, people mentally prepare for a possible return of the Taliban. Meanwhile, the ‘strategic communication’ people try to alter the ‘negative’ narrative into a direction even they themselves probably do not believe in.
Furthermore, the question again comes up (as put to me by al-Jazeera yesterday) whether Karzai has been ‘the right man’ to work with. I did not give them my bad-mood answer that even a combination of Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Jesus Christ reborn couldn’t have pulled the thing off singlehandedly.
Wrong question: It’s the system, stupid.
The over-centralized, presidential, non-prime minister system created in God’s — pardon, the U.S. system’s — own likeness, resulting in a sidelined parliament, a non-impartial Supreme Court, the lack of a Constitutional Court and, not least, a marginalized civil society and democratic forces.
During all the fuss between the Karzai-bashing Obama pre-election team and the Karzai-endorsing Obama post-elections team and all the policy reviews, the moment was missed when the whole thing could possibly have been stopped: when it became clear during the voter registration for the 2009 election that millions of voters (mainly women) were blatantly invented for an exercise in fraud which the Guatemalan generals who used to register the dead from the cemeteries would have been proud off. The power whose "exclusive property" Afghanistan is according to the Rolling Stone, should have said enough and started working for a Bonn II, which, this time, would be inclusive: with the Taliban, yes, and Jalaluddin and Gulbuddin for God’s sake but also with the pro-democratic civil society forces kicked out of Bonn I one its eve.
The worst that can happen now is that the Afghanistan war skeptics and the down-sizers of aims and expectations get their way and The General’s media blunder is used as an excuse to slam on the break and even accelerate the withdrawal. Am I arguing for The General — and the troops — to stay? Ask me another time.
But I am sure of one thing: If this happens, AAN’s chairman of the Advisory Board, an former UN and EU envoy, Francesc Vendrell is right when he says in today’s issue of the Australian The Age:
Having failed dismally to make the Afghan people our allies, we will inevitably abandon them to a combination of Taliban in the south and the warlords in the north and – having somehow redefined success – we will go home convinced that it is the Afghan people who have failed us.
From Dr. Hook’s lyrics:
We take all kind of pills to give us all kind of thrills
But the thrill we’ve never known
Is the thrill that’ll get you when you get your picture
On the cover of the Rolling Stone.
Thomas Ruttig is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, where this was originally published. He speaks Pashtu and Dari.