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President Obama Should Hire a New Strategy

June 23, 2010

After my blog yesterday urging President Obama to fire General McChrystal, I was glad to see the President relieve the commander of his duties today. President Obama should now finish the job by immediately abandoning the failing Counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. Unfortunately, the President said McChrystal’s release is a “change in personnel, not policy.” That is a mistake. COIN has failed to meet even the U.S. military’s idea of ‘success’ in Afghanistan. Attempting to weaken the Taliban without reconciling with the fractured groups which comprise it, as the Obama administration is trying to do while simultaneously propping up an illegitimate, corrupt government,  are not goals consistent with the U.S. military’s own COIN policy.  In the end, President Obama cannot continue this strategy while insiders like McChrystal’s Chief of Operations, Major General Bill Mayville, describes the conflict as more likely to “end in an argument” than look, smell or taste like a win?

When coalition forces led by 10,000 U.S. Marines invaded Marjah in February, the military’s expectation was that heavy resistance from the Taliban would give way to joint U.S.-Afghan control of the city with a population of 80.000. Upon arrival, the U.S. would roll out its “government-in-a-box” offering basic municipality services which would win over Afghan civilians, become a model for cooperation with the U.S. all over Afghanistan, and prove that COIN works. Fast forward five months: the Taliban is not gone from Marjah, the government is not operating at a reasonable capacity, and McChrystal’s failed operation in Marjah has become an example of the broader failure of the COIN strategy to meet basic benchmarks–so much so that McChrystal himself recognized Marjah as a “bleeding ulcer” in the Afghan campaign.

The philosophical backbone of COIN is that it is possible to win over a civilian population to the mission, predominantly by example and legitimate local governance. The “mission” in Afghanistan constantly repeated by the Obama administration is to “disrupt, dismantle and destroy al-Qaeda.” The glaring issue here is the fact that, according to DoD officials, there is nearly no al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan.  In order to prove that the war is a strategic necessity, the U.S. has identified another enemy: the Taliban. The problem is that the people who are part of the so called Taliban are indistinguishable from the civilian population and the civilian population sympathizes with (but not necessarily supports) them. The U.S. military cannot expect to weaken the Taliban without reconciliation efforts because COIN calls for restraint from harming civilians who are indistinguishable from and sympathetic to the Taliban. The policy itself is little more than bravado, and is not conducive to long term political reconciliation.

My point is not meant to support the use of force; rather, the undeniable fact is that there is no military solution to conflict in Afghanistan, not even a ‘civilian friendly’ COIN strategy.

Military brass know this fact well. As General Barry McCaffery once famously said, “We can’t shoot our way out of Afghanistan.” McChrystal himself said in January that “a political solution … is the inevitable outcome” and “the right outcome” . To be fair, McChrystal believes that enough force is the key to a successful political outcome; Marjah, however, clearly indicates this not the case. One must wonder, as many soldiers are wondering, if this strategy has been proven unworkable, why does President Obama insist on continuing the policy? Major General Mayville is correct on this point: Afghanistan won’t taste like a win; it will taste very bitter, leaving an irremovable mark on American history, foreign policy, and psychology. As Thomas Friedman pointed out in his latest New York Times Op-Ed, President Obama’s “only real choices are lose early, lose late, lose big or lose small” if he continues on this path.

President Obama is the only person who can change the course of this conflict; he is the only one who can abandon this military led model, pull out of valleys where Afghan fighters are only concerned with our presence because of our presence, create an Afghan civilian led strategy and deescalate the war. That said, Congress must support this course of action by commissioning a bi-partisan Afghanistan Study Group to both provide the review the Defense Department will not and provide recommendations of how to responsibly go forward in Afghanistan as we move into the July 2011 transitional phase. DoD is already talking internally about more troops, hence Congress has an obligation to ensure President Obama can make a sound, well informed decision in July 2011; an Afghanistan Study Group is the only way to ensure this. Beyond McChrystal’s failure of judgment and hubris, his COIN strategy has failed and must be abandoned. Obama’s message today was clear: “I run this show” – so I say, “run it then, Sir.”

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