Commentary Magazine


Financial Times Gets Afghanistan Wrong

The Financial Times has an op-ed today entitled “We Must Face Reality in Afghanistan.” But the picture painted by its author, Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who was previously a professor at the Sorbonne, doesn’t reflect reality. It’s like a dispatch from Bizarro Afghanistan—an alternate universe.

He begins: “The Taliban is winning the war in Afghanistan, a fact even the top U.S. commander in the country reluctantly concedes.” Apparently he missed the fact—which I noted in a previous COMMENTARY article—that General McChrystal said no such thing; his position was twisted by a Wall Street Journal headline writer.

It doesn’t take long to stumble across another odd claim: “Gen McChrystal was named commander of U.S. and Nato forces in Afghanistan in June, reportedly after he convinced Robert Gates, secretary of defence, that he could do more with less.” I have never heard from any credible source that McChrystal told Gates he “could do more with less,” and I very much doubt it’s true. Instead, the first thing McChrystal did upon arriving in Afghanistan was launch a review of current operations to see if there were enough troops in the theater, which there weren’t.

Dorronsoro claims that “Gen McChrystal persuaded him [Secretary Gates] that he could turn the tide in its favour with only a change in strategy.” Again, I very much doubt that McChrystal said any such thing.

To add to the errors, Dorronsoro goes on to write off U.S. counterinsurgency operations, which are barely beginning, in southern Afghanistan as a failure already:

The U.S. chose Helmand as a test case, and while operations are not yet finished, they are clearly not working as planned.

“Clearing” has become almost impossible. The insurgents are part of the population, and there is no way to distinguish them from ordinary villagers. In the Pashtun south, where xenophobic feelings are common, many if not most Afghans support the insurgents more readily than the international coalition. As a consequence, the area targeted by coalition forces remains unsafe, and in view of the weakness of the Afghan army, there is no way to withdraw without allowing the Taliban to regain control.

Keep in mind that although there are plans to deploy 68,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, not all of them have arrived yet. The operations in Helmand that Dorronsoro refers to were launched by the Marines in June, utilizing plans that had been drawn up before McChrystal even arrived. It’s absurd to claim (a) that the Helmand operation is a referendum on McChrystal’s strategy and (b) that it has already failed, when all successful counterinsurgency efforts take a substantial period of time to make an impact. Writing off operations in Afghanistan today is reminiscent of armchair analysts in the summer of 2007, or even earlier, who were claiming that the surge was a failure in Iraq when it had barely begun.

Dorronsoro makes another questionable claim when he writes:

The U.S. made a significant mistake in offering the insurgents a “historic” battle—comparable to the failed Soviet offensive in the Panjshir Valley in the 1980s. The insurgents chose not to fight U.S. troops frontally in southern Helmand, instead regrouping in the northern area, where the terrain is more favourable to them, and fighting hard against the British.

It is the height of folly to compare the population-centric counterinsurgency operations being undertaken today by coalition forces in Afghanistan—operations resulting in minimal civilian casualties—with the scorched-earth tactics practiced by the Red Army in the 1980s. There is little in common between the two, and the Afghan people know it. Most of them still welcome the presence of coalition forces, whereas almost none of them were in favor of the Soviet presence in the 1980s.

To cap his fallacious analysis, Dorronsoro concludes:

Though public officials seldom state it as clearly, the US still has a limited and achievable objective in Afghanistan: securing a viable state and preventing al-Qaeda from regaining its lost base. To have a reasonable chance of accomplishing that, US planners must recognize that the American public will not countenance more troops in Afghanistan in the same year troops are withdrawing from Iraq. They should focus their efforts on cities and key roads and build up the Afghan army.

Two more errors. First, he claims that the public will not countenance more troops, whereas public support for the war in Afghanistan is considerably higher today than was the support for the Iraq war in 2007, when President Bush mounted a major troop increase. If Bush could pull that off given the climate of opinion at the time, it is ridiculous to suggest that public opinion would prevent President Obama from sending more troops to Afghanistan today.

The second fallacy is his suggestion that troops “should focus their efforts on cities and key roads and build up the Afghan army.” There is nothing wrong with protecting cities and key roads and building up the Afghan army—all three must be pillars of a successful counterinsurgency strategy. But his implication that the coalition should leave the countryside to the enemy is foolhardy. Talk about repeating the Soviets’ mistakes—if NATO were to do that, it would indeed be consigning itself to the fate of the Red Army, which wound up getting besieged in the cities. Luckily, General McChrystal is too smart to repeat that error.

It is hard to imagine a more misbegotten piece of analysis about Afghanistan. Normally, I would let it pass, but in this case I couldn’t, because it appeared in a reputable publication and was written by an author from a reputable institution. Moreover, it does seem to reflect a certain mindset increasingly prevalent in our capital and the capitals of our allies, where too many people are willing to concede defeat in Afghanistan before our troops have begun to fight properly.

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