As President Obama weighs his strategic options in Afghanistan, media reports and administration critics have been manufacturing a drama of insubordination and dissent from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. In a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London earlier this month, McChrystal challenged conventional assumptions about the war and outlined his view of the campaign against the Taliban. The general flatly critiqued the minimalist, "counterterrorist" approach preferred by newfound skeptics of the war, including, reportedly, Vice President Joe Biden, and he made a cogent case for population-centered counterinsurgency, which recognizes that winning the support of Afghan civilians is the key to success.
This was not insubordination; it was frank advice. Subsequent news that Obama has been quietly deploying an additional 13,000 troops to Afghanistan underscores the extent to which the president has been listening. McChrystal prefers his counterinsurgency approach to the more dramatic, but ultimately counterproductive, use of air power and drone attacks. Airstrikes can reach targets that are out of range of ground forces, and they expose our forces to little or no immediate risk. But they also contribute to what counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, a former advisor to Gen. David Petraeus, calls the "accidental guerrilla" phenomenon. In short, this mode of killing insurgents can actually multiply, rather than reduce, their number by inciting family members and bystanders who previously had no stake in the fighting.
McChrystal also emphasized his need for more troops—as many as 40,000 of them. He has since argued to the president's "war council" that additional forces are necessary to prevent "mission failure." However, what may be most significant about McChrystal's request is that he made it at all. For years, top civilians in the Bush administration actively discouraged commanders in Iraq from requesting more forces. The White House then hid behind the "recommendations" of commanders on the ground, whose public stances had been crafted not to reflect real military needs but to serve the administration's domestic political needs. With McChrystal's impolitic request for troops, we have reason to believe the charade has ended.
McChrystal almost certainly did not leak his troop request to the press. Nothing could have been less helpful in persuading Obama to approve additional forces than to embarrass the administration publicly with a leak. Given growing public skepticism about the war, it is just as likely that opponents of sending additional soldiers were responsible for leaking the information to sour Americans on the war by emphasizing its rising costs.
Recently, the administration has said it can imagine integrating the Taliban into Afghanistan's political system while continuing to target al Qaeda operatives. At first glance, this suggests the minimalist "counterterrorist" approach publicly opposed by McChrystal. But before we can afford to integrate the Taliban into Afghan government, U.S. and NATO forces will have to reduce the grudging popular support the Taliban has won as a result of our earlier tactics. McChrystal's population-centered approach is far more likely to achieve this objective than "counterterrorist" strikes from on high.
Indeed, in his public remarks, McChrystal acknowledges that our predicament in Afghanistan is fundamentally a political one. It will be resolved only when Afghans believe that the government in Kabul can provide basic services, especially security, better than the Taliban can, and when citizens no longer feel compelled to rely on the Taliban for a crude outline of law and order. Creating such an environment depends on establishing security for the civilian population.
This will require applying similar counterinsurgency tactics against the Taliban on the Pakistani side of the porous border, which will necessitate significantly greater training for the Pakistani army, whose ham-handed campaigns have been responsible for displacing vast numbers of civilians and indirectly aiding the Taliban. Just as Washington once relied on angry Afghan refugees to fuel insurgency against the Soviets, the internally displaced people of western Pakistan will likely become a steady source of recruits for insurgency and terrorism. Minimalist, "counterterrorist" operations launched from afar will not remedy these problems, but are more likely to exacerbate them and could trigger the failure of one or more states in South Asia.