Afghanistan: Leaving the Labyrinth

President Karzai has lost his preferred commander – General McChrystal falls on his sword – and New Zealand’s commitment to Afghanistan has not changed. Does anyone know what’s really happening in the labyrinth?

Prime Minister John Key says the Rolling Stone row in Washington will not influence New Zealand’s commitment to Afghanistan. Beyond that, he has surprisingly little to say on the subject, given that General Stanley McChrystal was just as much his strategic commander in the field as he was President Obama’s, and the prime minister was supposed to be considering the general’s strong hint that the NZ SAS should stay on beyond next March, the expiry date for its deployment to Kabul.

Defence Minister Wayne Mapp obviously needed a reminder. A matter of hours after the new of McChrystal’s departure came through from Washington, Dr Mapp was assuring parliament’s foreign affairs select committee that the SAS would be withdrawn on its original schedule.

Mapp has since discovered he was jumping the gun, and has now “clarified” the position. Cabinet has still to take a decision about terminating the SAS deployment. The general has left the labyrinth, but we are still looking for the exit.

Poor General McChrystal. It took him three months to convince his commander-in-chief that he needed more troops to end what is now the longest war in US history. He got less troops than he asked for – and, even worse, less time than he needed to show he had a strategy that just might see his country, and allies like New Zealand, leave Afghanistan in better shape than when they arrived.

McChrystal was the first alliance commander to promote a counter-insurgency strategy based on a simple but logical premise: you cannot kill your way to victory in a country where every death seeds a new crop of aspiring martyrs. He rejected the Vietnam solution of destroying the city to save the city. Civilian casualties could no longer be treated as collateral damage, under McChrystal’s new rules of engagement.

The general knew that the military might temporarily clear territory of the enemy, but it would take much better local government and a mountain of reconstruction and development assistance to hold it. He also managed something his predecessors never did: he lured Karzai out of his palace to rally opposition to the Taliban in their birthplace and set the scene for his long-delayed surge into Khandahar. He became, as Karzai’s spokesman Wahid Omar put it, "an important and trusted partner for the Afghan government and the Afghan people".

Whatever gains he made in places like Kabul and Khandahar, the general must have known he was racing the clock in Washington. His president coupled his pre-Christmas announcement that an extra 30,000 U.S. troops would be committed to the battle with a timetable for their withdrawal, starting in July next year.

It was the withdrawal message that vice president Joe “Bite me” Biden rammed home: “the purpose is to make it clear to Karzai and his government that up until now been unwilling to step up to the ball, ‘Fellas, you’ve got to step up to the ball,’ “

The Taliban saw the opportunity as the Biden ball whistled by the fellas in Kabul. They could continue to harass army supply lines and frustrate Karzai’s effort to recruit soldiers, police, and local officials with an orchestrated combination of improvised roadside explosive devices, suicide bomb attacks, violent extortion and targeted assassinations, while new rules of engagement limited their enemies’ use of lethal force to avoid civilian casualties. All they had to do was slow the allies down, swim like sharks in the sea of the people – and wait.

While McCrystal built his influence in Kabul, he recognized the shortcomings of Karzai’s efforts to “Afghanise” the campaign against the Taliban. As commander of the United Nations International Security Assistence Force, he would have known what NATO rapporteurs were reporting to the sponsoring politicians gathered at Riga at the beginning of this month. Here’s their take on Afghan military recruitment:

Independent analysts suggest that the extreme pressures of meeting agreed force development deadlines are pushing Afghan company commanders to do “whatever it takes” to report the desired numbers of trained and operational troops, regardless of the reality on the ground.  The need to report good news under these conditions is driven not only by political pressures, but also by the financial interests of the reporting officers, whose military careers have been relatively lucrative by Afghan standards.”

As for the Afghan National Police, here’s what the NATO rapporteur had to say:

“ISAF figures suggest that only 13 of the 365 Afghan districts have police forces ‘capable of basic law and order operations and leadership tasks appropriate to local circumstances without external assistance’. By another measure, only 12% of the ANP’s units are capable of operating on their own. The ANP is unable to provide even for its own survival in the face of the insurgency;  indeed, problems such as inadequate equipment and facilities as well as training have meant that, since January 2007, over 2,000 police have been killed on duty – a rate twice that of the Afghan National Army.”

Turning to the development of civilian governance in Afghanistan, here’s the ultra-polite assessment of Staffan de Mistura, head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan on the performance of the Afghan ministries of Interior and Defence and the National Security Directorate in vetting candidates for the parliamentary elections due next September:

Out of 2,577 candidates – 13 candidates appear to have been excluded for having links to illegal armed groupsThe process of vetting has not produced a satisfactory result so far. The Vetting Committee could have done a more thorough job and at this stage we are disappointed… I understand that His Excellency President Karzai is equally concerned and planning to constructively and proactively attempt to address this issue.”

In the now infamous Rolling Stone article, McChrystal’s aides paint a picture of Karzai that implies Afghanistan’s president is about as engaged in the war as the general’s “boss” was at their first encounter.

One major difference between them is that Karzai didn’t even want an apology over the article, while Obama demanded a resignation. The other is that Karzai still has 12 empty chairs to fill at his cabinet table and Obama only had one replacement to find for his war room, and an agreeable candidate waiting for the job.

McChrystal’s successor General David Petraeus is committed to his boss’s timetable to start withdrawing those 30,000 additional troops from Afghanistan next July – but then he also believes that Karzai is hitting his army and police recruitment targets despite some damning NATO reports about how it’s being done. Welcome to the labyrinth, general.