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If McChrystal’s Out, What Should Change in Afghanistan? A Guide

Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s successor will face a host of strategic questions, ones that McChrystal himself will still have to confront if he stays in command.

Jul 31, 2020
Gen. Stanley McChrystal (Oscar Matatquin/ZUMA Press)
President Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal began their decisive one-on-one talk in the Oval Office at 9:51 a.m., according to ABC’s Jake Tapper. Whether or not McChrystal loses his command, all signs point to Obama sticking with his current Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. If so, that means that operational and tactical changes are likely in Afghanistan, but not strategic ones. So what are the key aspects of McChrystal’s approach in Afghanistan? And what are some of the objective constraints and obstacles that he or the next commander will have to confront?
[Security1] Here’s a guide to examine the key “inflection points” that characterize McChrystal’s tenure, along with some criticism of them. The purpose of the guide is to test the strength of the arguments for and against what McChrystal has done in Afghanistan thus far, with the caveat that not all of the 30,000 surge troops that Obama ordered for Afghanistan have arrived yet.
1. Protecting the population. Everything McChrystal did and didn’t do in Afghanistan was predicated on one proposition: The key to rolling back the Taliban’s influence in Afghanistan was to make it irrelevant or discredited in the eyes of Afghan civilians, and the way to accomplish that was to keep Afghan civilians safe from harm — either from insurgent attack or from the unintended consequences of U.S. actions. It’s easy to forget that before McChrystal arrived in command, the paucity of U.S. troops in Afghanistan meant that air strikes were a key tool of U.S. commanders, and the resultant civilian casualties were a driver of outrage among Afghans and eroded ties with President Hamid Karzai. McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan, restricted the use of air strikes, and McChrystal restricted them even further. McChrystal’s counterinsurgency guidance for his troops instructed them that cutting off engagements with insurgents in populated areas was the wiser course, given the objective is to secure Afghan support for the mission through providing Afghan security.
But right now it looks like we have neither. The United Nations’ most recent report on Afghanistan found violence rising in the south, where the bulk of McChrystal’s efforts are focused. (More on that later.) Karzai had to guarantee local support for an impending series of operations to secure Kandahar that are in their opening phases. Some U.S. troops in the field have complained that the rules of engagement are too restrictive, as Rolling Stone reported, putting their lives at greater risk.
The next commander will have to ask if McChrystal’s theory of population-centricity was incorrect. If so, that augurs an even more violent fight in Afghanistan, and raises questions about whether and how U.S. forces will seek to secure local support for their operations, or if they’ll just seek to find Taliban — who blend in with the population — and kill or capture them. Alternatively, the next commander might assess that McChrystal’s theory went too far, and attempt to recalibrate the balance between U.S. force protection and securing the population. That includes modifying the rules of engagement to allow greater latitude — and also greater prospects for civilian casualties. Michael Cohen, a critic of counterinsurgency, hinted that he thinks that’s the right way to go:
We should go out of our way to protect civilians in Afghanistan, but if in doing so it undermines the war effort there or leads to likely failure then we shouldn’t take the gloves off – we should adopt a new strategy that takes into account the actual capabilities of our armed forces.
That sounds great, but no one has yet articulated how that balance ought to be struck.
2. Focusing on the south. A corollary of the first point. The south is home to more concentrated areas of Afghan residence, as well as being a major source of Taliban financing through the drug trade and its spiritual home. All previous commanders in Afghanistan focused their scarce resources on eastern Afghanistan, to try to disrupt the “rat lines,” as senior U.S. commanders in eastern Afghanistan described them to me in 2007, that allow insurgent infiltration and exfiltration to the tribal areas of neighboring Pakistan. Instead, McChrystal closed some of the remote combat outposts on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and withdrew from bloody and hard-to-defend terrain like the Korengal Valley— a place that counterinsurgency critic Doug Macgregor, a retired Army colonel, described as “the one place where [U.S. troops] would be overwhelmed and overrun.” (It happened.)
Even so, the next commander will have to ask if focusing on the south allows the insurgency too much free rein, even as Obama’s strategy calls for the erosion of insurgent safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “We should’ve owned that area, owned that border,” said Malcolm Nance, a Special Forces veteran. “It looks like we’re not eating fighting the war [there] at this point.”
The U.S. military command in eastern Afghanistan has received exactly one of the surge brigades, putting its strength, according to Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, McChrystal’s deputy, at about 30,000 troops. It’s unclear how the new commander for eastern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. John Campbell, will be able to implement even a modified counterinsurgency strategyto protect about 10 million Afghans spread out across great and remote distances. Or is the south properly the key area of focus, and Campbell will simply need to hold on?
3. Supplementing the east with high-intensity Special Operations Forces. This has been the least-explored aspect of McChrystal’s approach in Afghanistan and quite possibly the exception to his population-protection approach. In response to the paucity of troops in the east and the command focus on the south, Special Operations Forces have conducted secretive and violent raids on suspected insurgent locations. Those raids have caused many of the most outrage-inducing civilian casualty incidentsof McChrystal’s tenure — exactly what his broader approach has considered the most deleterious thing to U.S. prospects for success — and leading him to seek greater control over Special Operations units that are not entirely under his command. The next commander is going to have to assess whether what some have called “COIN for the south, counterterrorism for the east” is the right way to go, and whether the bifurcation in command that exists between regular forces and Special Operators is tenable. That decision flows logically from the central question about the value of population protection.
4. Emphasizing the training mission. Arguably the most successful aspect of McChrystal’s tenure so far. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the head of the new combined U.S./NATO mission to train and equip Afghan security forces, has had his efforts praised to Congress for putting the outfitting of a capable Afghan Army ahead of schedule. Training the Afghans to take over security responsibilities is a consensus position within the administration and across party lines in Congress, as it signifies the most likely prospect for extrication from a stable Afghanistan. But there’s a lot more work that needs to be done, and the next commander will have to balance how much of his resources he’s willing to devote to the training mission with how much he’s willing to devote to warfighting. Since Obama is unlikely to back away from his July 2011 deadline for beginning to transfer security responsibilities to Afghan forces, it’s a resourcing question that could cut either way: either accelerate fighting ahead of July 2011 or double down on training to ensure confidence in the transition.
5.**Kandahar. **A subset of the focus on the south, but a huge, pressing issue: Should the next commander keep to McChrystal’s plans for a “process” of taking parts of the city back from the Taliban by providing a “rising tide” of greater U.S. forces and (hopefully) Afghan governance? Karzai ultimately backed the mission. But much of it will depend on entrenching local powerbrokers to supplement U.S. efforts, something a brand new task force was stood up to confront. Will the next commander keep to a schedule that McChrystal had to amend? Or will he opt to emphasize the fight in a different area?
These are just five of a host of immediate questions that McChrystal’s successor will have to face — and, if McChrystal stays in command, McChrystal himself will still have to confront.
Dexter Cooke

Dexter Cooke

Dexter Cooke is an economist, marketing strategist, and orthopedic surgeon with over 20 years of experience crafting compelling narratives that resonate worldwide. He holds a Journalism degree from Columbia University, an Economics background from Yale University, and a medical degree with a postdoctoral fellowship in orthopedic medicine from the Medical University of South Carolina. Dexter’s insights into media, economics, and marketing shine through his prolific contributions to respected publications and advisory roles for influential organizations. As an orthopedic surgeon specializing in minimally invasive knee replacement surgery and laparoscopic procedures, Dexter prioritizes patient care above all. Outside his professional pursuits, Dexter enjoys collecting vintage watches, studying ancient civilizations, learning about astronomy, and participating in charity runs.
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