New face on Washington’s war

May 18, 2009

As part of a continuing shake-up in the U.S. approach to the Afghan war, the Pentagon has fired the U.S. general in charge of the occupation and appointed another. But the "new" Obama policy faced some old problems last week when officials scrambled to deny reports of mass civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes.

Anand Gopal, Afghanistan correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, talked to David Whitehouse about the significance of the latest developments.

THE AIR strikes that killed nearly 150 civilians in Farah province last week brought the issue of civilian casualties back into American headlines. What was the impact in Afghanistan?

THE AMERICANS are close to permanently losing half the country. Support for the Americans in the ethnic Pashtun areas, where most of these bombings are taking place, are at an all-time low. The majority of rural Pashtuns want the U.S. to leave.

Most of them say that their lives are worse today than 10 years ago, under the Taliban. Under that regime, they had no jobs and no prospects for social advancement. Under the current regime, they still have no jobs or prospects for advancement, plus they are living with the effects of a brutal war.

Anger is growing in the non-Pashtun areas as well, although most people in those places still want the Americans to stay, and most say that their lives are better now than before the U.S. invasion.

WHY DID Defense Secretary Robert Gates fire the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan? Does the appointment of Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal mark a shift in U.S. war strategy?

Stanley McChrystal
Stanley McChrystal (Helene C. Stikkel | Department of Defense)

THE FIGURE at the center of all of this is Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command. Petraeus, who used to work under McKiernan in Iraq, rose to fame by "thinking outside the box" when it came to counterinsurgency. His real coup de grace was to buy off Sunni insurgents in Iraq, which helped reduce the levels of violence there.

Petraeus was never fully behind McKiernan, who is known for operating "by the book." Some military officials tell me that McChrystal is more inclined to try unconventional tactics than McKiernan is.

McChrystal might be open to such tactics because of his background as a Special Forces commander. As head of the Joint Special Operations Command for five years, he conducted assassination campaigns and targeted killings of high-level al-Qaeda and insurgent figures.

He was at the helm when Special Forces captured Saddam Hussein and killed Abu Musawi Zarqawi, which earned him fulsome praise in military circles. But Special Forces under his command have also been accused of abusing detainees and are behind the night searches and house raids that are so deeply unpopular here.

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McChrystal's appointment probably does not mark a fundamental shift in U.S. war strategy. The U.S. is still wedded to a counterinsurgency model marked by three factors.

First, it's averse to troop casualties, which is why they rely on air strikes. Air strikes usually happen in support of ground troops under siege, and the only way to avoid such strikes is to shift to a strategy that allows more ground engagement--which would require a much higher tolerance for troop casualties.

Second, the U.S. is focused on securing urban centers and highways, leaving the majority of the country outside of its control. The only way to change this strategy would be to increase troop presence to hundreds of thousands, which would cause plenty of other problems.

Finally, the U.S. will continue to operate outside the law and command of the Afghan government. This means, for instance, that we will continue to see house raids, detentions and more.

The biggest change that might come with the new general is an intensification of counter-terrorism operations, such as targeted assassinations, and more willingness to try other approaches, such as bypassing the Karzai government and working for local power-brokers.

THE U.S. plans to bankroll a vast expansion of the Afghan National Army (ANA). What results are we likely to see?

THE ANA is developing well, considering that this country had no modern army to speak of less than 10 years ago. But it primarily functions as an auxiliary force to the foreign troops. We are still a long way off from the army being able to stand on its own.

The country is too divided ethnically and politically, and too ravaged by war, corruption and ineffective government, to imagine a strong national army. National consciousness is very weak here, and political mobilization still primarily occurs along ethnic, kinship and tribal networks.

Moreover, the ANA is unable to exist without financial funding from foreign patrons. The Afghan state does not have the fiscal power to fund its own army, meaning that it is hard to conceive of the army acting independently of the United States.

Spending millions to build up the Afghan army, without attempting to address the underlying factors that prevent the army from ever standing on its own, seems a bit like Sisyphus pushing the boulder uphill.

The Russians had a similar problem in the 1980s. The army they built was able to survive for nearly three years after their withdrawal, but soon after, they cut their funding to the Afghan state, and the army crumbled. This is because the underlying contradictions and tensions of Afghan society weren't addressed during their intervention here. If anything, they were exacerbated.

THE U.S. also promises an enlarged program of economic development. Has this begun, and what shape is it taking?

AT THIS stage, this is mostly talk, although there are some signs of increased aid. But besides this, there is no perceptible shift in U.S. development strategy. One of the biggest criticisms Afghans have is that the strategy exists primarily to enrich U.S. corporations, not Afghanistan.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, for example, has a system by which most development contracts must be given to a select group of U.S. corporations, who then subcontract the job out to another company, and so on, until an Afghan company does the job for a fraction of what was originally paid out.

In these cases, the quality of the project is almost entirely dependent on the competency of the various contractors and subcontractors. For example, there is one major highway here where parts done by an American company are in disrepair even though it was built just a few years ago. Other parts, done by a Japanese company, are in decent condition.

All of the problems that existed in Iraq--fraud, lack of oversight, backroom dealing, etc.--exist here, and possibly to an even greater degree.

While the world is mired in an economic crisis, Afghanistan is one place where business is booming--if you're foreigner or high-level government official. It is astonishingly easy to land a contract if you have the right connections. If you have any expertise in law, finance, engineering, governance, education, health care, etc.--or even if you just pretend to--you can take home a six-figure salary as a consultant.

Much of the U.S. aid and development programs here bypass the central government. While some feel that this weakens the authority of the state, this most likely wouldn't be an issue if the money was actually spent constructively--since the central government would only stand to gain from the economic development of the countryside.

The real problem is that most of the money spent here ends right back in American coffers, not in Afghanistan. This is something that deeply upsets Afghans.

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