Not only is the United States likely to need more troops in Afghanistan, it also needs a new strategy for combating insurgents and a new way of dealing with the Afghan people, according to the top general there. After nearly eight years in the country, the United States, in essence, needs to start over.
The one positive of this disheartening assessment from Gen. Stanley McChrystal is that it provides Congress and the Obama administration an opportunity to reshape and redirect the U.S. mission in Afghanistan to better fit with achievable outcomes. This opportunity can’t be wasted.
“Additional resources are required, but focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely,” the general wrote in an Aug. 30 report to the White House, which was first made public by The Washington Post. “The key takeaway from this assessment is the urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way we think and operate.”
Gen. McChrystal is expected to ask for more troops, but the Pentagon has delayed that report.
Seizing terrain and killing insurgent forces is not working. Instead, the U.S. and NATO forces need to focus on the Afghan people. Simply put, Afghan civilians must be protected from insurgent attacks and from “friendly fire” that kills civilians.
Because U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan for so long, civilians blame all of the country’s violence on them. An Afghan suicide bomber blows himself, up killing several of his countrymen; the U.S. is to blame. An improvised explosive device goes off, missing a U.S. vehicle but killing nearby Afghanis; the U.S. is to blame. A firefight erupts between insurgent and NATO forces, and civilians are killed; the U.S. is to blame.
This may all sound familiar. A similar assessment was made in Iraq. A change in strategy to focus more on working with Iraqis and their military as much as sending more troops there helped quell violence and increase stability Iraq.
The same plan, belatedly, can improve the situation in Afghanistan.
While lawmakers, including Sen. Susan Collins and the Senate Armed Services Committee on which she serves, are right to want to question Gen. McChrystal, they must also ask themselves how they let the situation in Afghanistan get so desperate. Diverting much-needed manpower from Afghanistan, which was a base for al-Qaida and where the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were likely plotted, to Iraq is a major reason. Doubling the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan years ago could have made a big difference. So, too, could have setting benchmarks and ensuring progress toward them was being made.
Of course, the clock can’t be turned back. As Gen. McChrystal says in his report, it is time to stop following the same failing course and to ensure that the international soldiers and civilian workers who are in Afghanistan are serving the interests of the Afghan people. Ensuring Afghanistan does not again become a base for terrorism is one of those interests.
Gen. McChrystal has outlined a reasonable way forward in Afghanistan. It should be given a chance to work.