Sacked US General Stanley McChrystal issued a devastatingly critical assessment of the war against a "resilient and growing insurgency" just days before being forced out.
Using confidential military documents, copies of which have been seen by the IoS, the "runaway general" briefed defence ministers from Nato and the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) earlier this month, and warned them not to expect any progress in the next six months. During his presentation, he raised serious concerns over levels of security, violence, and corruption within the Afghan administration.
Details of General McChrystal's grim assessment of his own strategy's current effectiveness emerged as the world's most powerful leaders set the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, a five-year deadline to improve security and governance in his country.
The G8 summit in Toronto called for "concrete progress" within five years on improving the justice system and for Afghan forces to assume greater responsibility for security. David Cameron said a "political surge" must now complement the military one.
But the "campaign overview" left behind by General McChrystal after he was sacked by President Barack Obama last week warned that only a fraction of the areas key to long-term success are "secure", governed with "full authority", or enjoying "sustainable growth". He warned of a critical shortage of "essential" military trainers needed to build up Afghan forces – of which only a fraction is classed as "effective".
He pinpointed an "ineffective or discredited" Afghan government and a failure by Pakistan "to curb insurgent support" as "critical risks" to success. "Waning" political support and a "divergence of coalition expectations and campaign timelines" are among the key challenges faced, according to the general.
It was this briefing, according to informed sources, as much as the Rolling Stone article, which convinced Mr Obama to move against the former head of US Special Forces, as costs soar to $7bn a month and the body count rises to record levels, because it undermined the White House political team's aim of pulling some troops out of Afghanistan in time for the US elections in 2012. In addition to being the result of some too-candid comments in a magazine article, the President's decision to dispense with his commander was seen by the general's supporters as a politically motivated culmination of their disagreements.
General McChrystal's presentation to Nato defence ministers and Isaf representatives provided an uncompromising obstacle to Mr Obama's plan to bring troops home in time to give him a shot at a second term, according to senior military sources. The general was judged to be "off message" in his warning to ministers not to expect quick results and that they were facing a "resilient and growing insurgency".
It came as mounting casualties added to US and UK discomfort. June has been the bloodiest month for coalition forces since the conflict began, with 88 killed. A soldier from 4th Regiment Royal Artillery died yesterday in hospital in Birmingham of wounds sustained in an explosion on 10 June. He had been on patrol with members of the Afghan National Army in Nahr-e Saraj North District, Helmand Province. He was the 308th British soldier killed since the start of the war nine years ago. The death toll is escalating, with 62 deaths this year – almost double the 32 that died in the same period last year.
Nato played down the chances of success. "I don't think anyone would say we're winning," said a Nato spokesman. The revelations provide context to the disagreements between Mr Obama and his general, highlighted in the article in Rolling Stone in which senior White House figures were criticised.
The reality, according to a senior military source, is that General McChrystal's candour about the reality of the situation was an obstacle to Mr Obama's search for an "early, face-saving exit" to help his chances in the 2012 presidential elections. "Stan argued for time, and would not compromise. Rolling Stone provided an excuse for Obama to fire the opposition to his plan without having to win an intellectual argument," he said.
General McChrystal knew "his time was up" and had been told by White House aides his "time-frame was all wrong", with the general thinking in years while the President was thinking more in months, he added.
The general's departure is a sign of politicians "taking charge of this war", a senior Whitehall official said. "The Taliban are feeling the pressure, but we're not harvesting it politically," he said. "Obama sacking McChrystal was a show of strength. What we are seeing on both sides of the Atlantic, at long last, is the politicians starting to take charge of this war. Wars are won when you have a Churchill and an Alanbrooke, when you have a proper balance between political direction and military leadership."
Mr Cameron asked for a political settlement to be mapped out at a special cabinet meeting held at Chequers earlier this month, he said. "Cameron doesn't want to make Brown's mistake of getting bogged down in details instead of doing grand strategy."
He said General McChrystal had been urging Washington to "start the political track as soon as possible" while his replacement, General Petraeus, has argued "that we need to get the upper hand militarily and regain the military initiative, and then negotiate from a position of strength". He said it would take time to recover from General McChrystal's loss, "particularly if Petraeus just ploughs on with trying to get the upper hand militarily".
Admiral Mike Mullen met with President Karzai yesterday to assure him that the new Nato commander will pursue the same strategy followed by his predecessor. He pledged that General Petraeus would also do his best to reduce civilian casualties.
General McChrystal said progress in the next six months was unlikely. He raised serious concerns over levels of security, violence, and corruption within the Afghan administration. Only five areas out of 116 assessed were classed as "secure" – the rest suffering various degrees of insecurity and more than 40 described as "dangerous" or "unsecure".
Just five areas out of 122 were classed as being under the "full authority" of the government – with governance rated as non-existent, dysfunctional or unproductive in 89 of the areas. Seven areas out of 120 rated for development were showing sustainable growth. In 48 areas, growth was either stalled or the population were at risk. Less than a third of the military and only 12 per cent of police forces were rated as "effective".
A strategic assessment referred to in the presentation revealed just how close the strategy in Afghanistan is to failing. It stated that the campaign was "on track temporarily" – but this was defined as meaning that there was "a low level of confidence that positive trends will be sustained over the next six-month period". It also said the Afghan people "believe that development is too slow" and many "still generally mistrust Afghan police forces". Security was "unsatisfactory" and efforts to build up the Afghan security forces were "at risk", with "capability hampered by shortages in NCOs and officers, corruption and low literacy levels".
A general's damning report...
Afghan security forces
General McChrystal says both the Afghan police (ANP) and army (ANA) were "critically short on trainers – the essential resource required for quality". Out of 2,325 required, only 846 were already on the ground and 660 more were promised.
The Afghan government was assessed as having "full authority" in only five districts; in 45 more, governance was "unproductive", in 29 "dysfunctional" and in 15 "non-existent". In the "Critical risks" section of his presentation, General McChrystal listed "Governance: ineffective or discredited". ISAF accepted that "governance needs improvement and lags security efforts".
Nato informed that "violence and security varies regionally... focused in localised areas", and "assessments of key district security are improving slightly". However, only a third of 122 "key terrain areas" were regarded as "secure" or suffering "occasional threats". In key areas, 47 per cent of the population were assessed as secure.
General McChrystal noted the need to "address principal sources of corruption and grievance" in Kandahar. Nato warned that "corruption remains an impediment to connectivity between the government and its people". Echoes earlier US concerns that the "lack of Afghan government will and the capacity to prosecute narco-corrupt officials continues to undermine development of governance and security".
Referred to President Karzai's early pledge to "further the reform process within our justice system". But US Department of Defense has since complained courts are "chronically corrupt". McChrystal's recommendations on "Detention operations and rule of law" include "transition to Afghan lead" and "promoting transparency across spectrum of detention activities".
Emphasised need to "create conditions for development", particularly in the south. But there are worries that the government "has become increasingly dependent on contributions from the international community". Although satisfaction with the local electricity supply has risen, many remain without access and the general warns of the need to "significantly expand electrical supply to meet rising demand".Reuse content