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October 13, 2008

Explaning McKiernan on Afghanistan
Posted by Patrick Barry

General David McKiernan's remarks about Afghanistan yesterday amounted to a pretty major shift in tone from his past statements.  The NY Times reports:

The commander, Gen. David D. McKiernan, who leads more than 65,000 troops from about 40 foreign countries, including 33,000 Americans, said at a news conference in Kabul that there had been “too many” reports in the media recently asserting that the foreign forces and their Afghan allies were losing the war.

“I absolutely reject that idea, I don’t believe it,” the general said, adding: “It is true that there are many places in this country that don’t have an adequate level of security. We don’t have progress as even and as fast as any of us would like. But we are not losing in Afghanistan.”

The fact that McKiernan should so dramatically alter his tenor immediately after returning to Afghanistan from Washington makes me think this is a walk-back, probably designed by the Pentagon to present a united front after a week that saw criticism voiced by a number of NATO allies over the state of the war effort.  It doesn't much do to have NATO-ISAF commander sounding gloomy when people like British Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith are saying "we are not going to win this war." 

But McKiernan's answer also further exposes a disconnect between the U.S. and the rest of the world when it comes to what the future policy for Afghanistan should look like.  One reason for these diverging expectations is electoral politics - hyperbolic campaign language makes European capitals tremble with memories of Bush's plans to establish a Jeffersonian Democracy in Iraq, an experience they'd rather not repeat. 

Related to that is pressure from domestic constituencies, which has had different effects on either side of the Atlantic.  In the states, there is pressure pushing us toward Afghanistan, stemming from a concern that instability there will expose the U.S. to greater danger of a terrorist attack, and from a desire to right the wrongs committed when we turned from the Taliban and al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein.  On the other side of the ocean, domestic pressure pulls European ministers away from the Afghan theater, since for years it appeared that they were bearing a far greater brunt of a war that they perceived to be an afterthought for the U.S.

One last explanation is simple pride.  NATO countries, especially Great Britain, differ with the U.S. on some of the basic elements shaping a strategy for Afghanistan.  While both camps basically emphasize counter-insurgency, there is disagreement over how vigorously an agenda of accommodation and reconciliation should be pursued, especially with regard to moderate Taliban elements. British commanders, most recently Carlton-Smith, have treated this idea with more seriousness; Americans have been cagier (Robert Gates recently expressed willingness to separate moderate affiliates from their intransigent Taliban brethren, but even there he left himself a huge amount of wiggle-room.) Since policy differences like these tend to boil down to spats over who knows the country better, there may be some national psychology at work, but it's still a significant factor. 

Whatever the explanation, for British diplomats to be communicating to the French that the mission in Afghanistan is futile, while back stateside, members of our military are calling those assessments defeatist, means that we've reached a pretty large divide in terms of expectations, one which the next president will have to address.


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No complicated explanations are necessary. Obviously, "not going to win" and "not losing" are not mutually exclusive. The whole rationale behind the Pentagon's "Long War" is that it will never end, requiring larger and larger Pentagon budgets, more corporate profits, more combat jobs for generals, and then more jobs for generals in the grateful corporations that sell the Pentagon expensive useless military gadgets.

The Pentagon is now saying that it needs $450B more then it previously forecast over the next five years for "The Long War" that it's not going to win. Fannie and Freddie have nothing on the Pentagon. "We've failed -- send more money ASAP".

The UK is confident of its mission in Afghanistan. We are working closely with our allies to help Afghans establish security, stability and democracy in their country. In fact, the UK has always acknowledged that success in Afghanistan is a long-term objective, and requires a comprehensive approach to address security, political, social and economic development. My colleague Simon Shercliff wrote a blog entry yesterday discussing exactly that.

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I fail to see that there can be any progress toward economic and social problem solving, i.e., improving infrastructure, educational facilities, health problems--whatever leads to a strong, allegiance to love of Country, namely, in this instance, Afghanistan, until the strength of the people of Afghanistan-- whether the military or tribal forces--are convinced and are able to convince their fellow countrymen to destroy the heroin crops and do something else for the Country. Simply said--right! maybe naive and disingenuous - otherwise, we Americans are wasting our time, talent, and treasure(our military). We can talk, talk, and discuss, discuss, and rationalize, rationalize, and strategize over and over, but until the Afghans are convinced that growing heroin is ruinous to a civilized state--do they want to live in one, or do they continue to live in the barbaric state existing for the most part among the Afghanistanie people.

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