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While the sombre landmark of the three hundredth British death was passed this week, and the Commander has been summarily replaced, politicians and military leaders reveal divisions at the top that make everyone wonder whether the campaign is winnable.
By Professor Michael Clarke, Director, RUSI
24 June 2010
These are testing days for the United Kingdom's Afghanistan strategy. The country has invested a great deal in this regional war and all the immediate news seems to be bad. While the sombre landmark of the three hundredth British death was passed this week, politicians and military leaders reveal divisions at the top that make everyone wonder whether the campaign is winnable. The sacking of General McChrystal for an indiscretion, rather than any strategic failing, only appears to add to the sense of political malaise.
The stark truth is that the United Kingdom has few realistic options in this conflict for the time being. It has little choice but to carry on, to keep focussed on the medium-term prospects and not to over-react to a bad week; though it certainly has been a bad week.
The three hundredth death was always a landmark that would arrive sometime this year as Coalition troop numbers built up in the south of the country and ISAF forces went onto the offensive. And it is more than likely the four hundredth death will arrive before the campaign is over.
Tragic as each death is, these losses have not deflected UK forces from their operational objectives. They have continued to do what they were asked to do in Afghanistan. Certainly, they have paid a price for being in the middle of a civil war, but they have not lost any battles, or even skirmishes; they have not been deflected from their purposes by the opposition they have faced. The Taliban do not have a strategy that can beat ISAF forces in the field; only one that might beat them on the TV screen at home.
The McChrystal plan
The problem of the Afghanistan strategy lies some way beyond the power of anything the troops can do. The strategy devised by General Stanley McChrystal, was based on a troop surge to wrest the initiative from the Taliban and the warlords. Its aim was to open up key centres of commerce and movement in Helmand and Kandahar, creating a political momentum both inside and outside the country that in turn would swing the pendulum of Afghan opinion behind the Karzai Government as the eventual winners in this conflict.
It was classic counter-insurgency strategy and no one has offered a serious alternative to it. Vice President Biden's musings on a return to merely a 'counter-terrorist' campaign in Afghanistan found no traction among either analysts or military. After much agonising in Washington there was a reluctant acceptance at the end of last year that the McChrystal plan would either work or the whole enterprise would fail. And that has not changed.
In truth, the military part of the McChrysal plan is not working as quickly as anticipated. Operation Moshtarrak in Helmand will take longer to show governance and civilian results than was anticipated - though it is still on track to do so. More importantly, the next phase of the operation in Kandahar is on hold, pending greater consultation between the Karzai government and local representatives inside the city. The war cannot be won in Kandahar, but it can certainly be lost there. And the tough fact is that warlords like Matiullah Khan control the key road north from Kandahar to Tarin Kot in Uruzgan; and Abdul Razziq the key road south to the Pakistan border at Spin Boldak. Opening up the roads into, and within Kandahar, and making large areas of the city safe zones for everyone, will be a difficult business.
The military plan nevertheless remains coherent and achievable. But some short-term stalling now occurs at a point where President Obama has dismissed McChrystal as Commander-in-Chief in Afghanistan over unguarded comments made by the General and his staff, over a long period spent with a journalist they (mistakenly) took into their confidence. At one level this is a trivial affair and the President has over-reacted while he is under the political cosh on the home front: the indiscretion was little more than a series of jokes and innuendos military men make at the expense of their political bosses. The appointment of General David Petraeus to take over in Afghanistan - in effect moving down one peg from his CENTCOM command to do the job of one of his subordinate commanders - is at least a welcome gesture of continuity; he is a man of high command competence who has pioneered recent US thinking on successful counter-insurgency. Nevertheless, this switch in command, at another level, is deadly serious, since it reveals how far apart the 'military and the politicos' have really become in the United States. When counter-insurgency strategies have worked in the past, one of the pre-requisites has been shown to be the complete unity of view between political and military establishments; a genuine sharing of vision and interests, as well as a unity of strategy. This seems less and less to be present in the United States.
Even more worrying for the UK, it may be less present here as well. The resignation of Sherard Cowper-Coles from his position as Britain's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan could hardly have come at a worse time, whatever his own reasons for stepping down. There are now too few key people who can orchestrate the internal and external political momentum to back up the McChrystal plan in the way counter-insurgency strategies require. General McChrystal seemed to be the only western figure that President Karzai really listened to; and Cowper-Coles now joins a cast of impressive names - Richard Holbrooke, Karl Eikenberry, Hillary Clinton - who are no longer credible either in Kabul or as coordinators of the political approach from the international community. The Coalition is leaking influence within the Kabul government, rather than accumulating it as time goes on.
The UK contribution remains crucial
The British Coalition government repeats the commitment to make Afghanistan its most immediate security priority, but the whispers at Westminster are becoming more audible; 'should we face a disaster now by pulling out of Afghanistan, or a catastrophe later by staying in?' Is it winnable now in any meaningful sense?
The fact is that for all the wider strategic reasons the UK entered this conflict - its interests in supporting US actions, in addressing a deteriorating security situation in the region, in counter-terrorism, NATO credibility, and western resolve in the face of an outright challenge - it will be US actions that largely determine the range of UK choices. London has only a marginal strategic role to play in the region: marginal but not insignificant. Its influence lies in helping to keep the ISAF coalition politically united at a time of great strain. Other allies - the Netherlands and Canada - still maintain that they will leave Afghanistan soon. If the UK now followed suit the coalition would almost certainly collapse. So might the wavering resolve inside the United States.
The McChrystal plan is the only plausible option
The McChrystal plan, whoever implements it, remains the only game that can be played in Afghanistan if the country is to arrive at some sustainable outcome based on a Karzai government that includes a national reconciliation strategy.
The plan has not gone adrift. It has had a bad patch and there is a serious danger of political disarray instead of resolve in backing it up. But if the long-term future of Afghanistan is unknowable, the medium-term plan still remains achievable. The short-term bad news is certainly not good; but there is no reason yet to regard it as other than short-term.