Mary Dejevsky: The mission remains impossible

If the power and prestige of the US presidency emerge in good order, the same cannot be said of the military operation in Afghanistan
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The Independent Online

That Barack Obama and Stanley McChrystal were very different creatures was apparent from the first. Aside from a certain ranginess in their physiques, they had almost nothing in common; not language, not manner, not approach. Which did not have to be a liability. The one had to run the country, the other a nasty war. Their strengths might have been complementary, to mutual benefit.

This was not to be – for reasons that had less to do with the general's disparaging remarks than with the President. The barbs that have most wounded Obama have been the twin accusations of scholasticism and indecision. Vilified for what was seen as a late response to the BP oil spill, he could not risk the impression of weakness another time. Magnanimity was not a realistic option. A diminished President had to behave as the boss, on his own account and that of his slighted staff.

In so doing, of course, he also drove home the constitutional point that US military officers – however senior – are the servants of elected politicians. This is always a useful argument to make in a democracy, and it is the line Obama stressed in his pronouncement from the White House Rose Garden. Although McChrystal had not challenged the President's policy, he had belittled his authority. Rightful precedence was restored. With speed and ruthlessness, Obama showed that a US President has the power to propose – and dispose.

If the power and prestige of the presidency emerge in good order, however, the same cannot be said of operations in Afghanistan. To be sure, Obama did his utmost to limit the damage. His immediate nomination of General David Petraeus to replace McChrystal showed concern not to leave a vacuum and signalled not only continuity, but even an upgrading of the mission, given that Petraeus was McChrystal's senior.

Yet McChrystal's indiscretions cannot be separated from the progress, or lack of it, in Afghanistan. It is hardly a healthy situation, to say the least, when the commander in a theatre of war harbours the sort of contempt for his political masters that emerged from the profile of McChrystal in Rolling Stone magazine.

A particular point of contention appears to have been Obama's instructions that more should be done to avoid civilian casualties. The conflicting interests of the military and the politicians here are evident: aerial bombing protects soldiers, but at the cost of alienating the local population whose acquiescence will be needed for an eventual settlement. To hardened soldiers, such as former commando McChrystal, the politicians – especially one as equable as Obama – may well come across as "wimps", more concerned about civilian lives than those of their own soldiers, while the military impress the politicians as gung-ho fighters who lack any longer-term vision.

Nor is there any need to read between the lines to realise that the policy known as "talking to the Taliban" has proved divisive. In 2007, two diplomats – one Irish, one British – were expelled by President Karzai after being caught pursuing just such a policy covertly. After Obama became president and appointed Richard Holbrooke his special envoy, "talking to the Taliban" became official US and Nato policy. But, in a sure sign of disagreement, there were nuances. The Taliban was divided into those judged "moderate" and worth courting, and the ideologically committed who were to be "hunted down and killed".

Although "talking to the Taliban" remains a key element of Nato policy, there is little trace of any result. This may be because any talking must initially take place below the radar for the safety of all concerned. Military officers in the field, however, continue to speak about the Taliban only as the enemy. Speaking in London last week, a British officer, who recently commanded Task Force Helmand, spoke of the Taliban only as insurgents or the enemy and gave no hint of any other relationship – present or future. Combating the Taliban seemed the single focus.

A third area of dispute, or at the very least lack of clarity, is the balance between reconstruction and security. Nine years ago, when Western forces first arrived in Afghanistan, the theory was that, with the Taliban in flight, al-Qai'da forces had lost its protection. The purpose was to root them out for good. Reconstruction projects were seen as central to winning over the local population. As security deteriorated, military operations took precedence. With Obama's arrival at the White House, the pendulum swung back; his hopes for an early end-game seemed to depend, once again, on improving the lives of local people. Yet in many places civilian projects and military operations still seem to be in conflict rather than reinforcing each other.

It could be that on all these questions, David Petraeus – known as a soldier-scholar – will turn out to have more in common with Obama than McChrystal did. It must also be hoped that his health holds out; his prostate cancer is reported to have been successfully treated. But everything suggests that the disputes – about civilians, the Taliban and reconstruction – go beyond the US command and extend far down into Nato operations. The recent departure of the British special envoy in Kabul, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, is something officials are reluctant to talk about. But as a former ambassador to Afghanistan, he supported "talking to the Taliban"; and it is reasonable to assume that he would not have left, if he had believed the policy was working. There are well-meaning proposals, too, for greater EU and civilian involvement, but few signs of this actually happening.

Nato officials have put a brave face on the summary change of US commander, expressing confidence that policy will not change. But that may, in the end, be the trouble. Nine years on, that policy, in so far as it exists, remains caught between conflicting and competing requirements, and there is no sign that they are being reconciled.

For further reading

'Can the EU be more effective in Afghanistan?' by Joanna Buckley (Centre for European Reform, 2010); 'Nato after Afghanistan' by Karl-Heinz Kamp (Proceedings, USNI, 2010)