Not McChrystal Clear

By all accounts, the Obama administration’s new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, and the troop increase to implement it, is a counterinsurgency approach to counterterrorism. In other words, the primary objective is no longer to build a stable Afghan state, and the primary enemy is no longer the Taliban per se. Instead, the tactics of population-centered warfare learned in Iraq will be applied to Afghanistan and the Taliban insurgency, but only in order to target al-Qaida more effectively. The appointment of Gen. Stanley McChrystal — a dyed-in-the-wool COIN man — as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is seen as cementing this approach into place. So far, so good.

The problem comes when you stop and consider the consensus view, most recently articulated by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and seconded by Gen. David Petraeus, that al-Qaida no longer operates out of Afghanistan, nor does it have any substantial presence there. Which means that the strategy guiding the past several years of the Afghanistan War, and the one so far articulated by the Obama administration, bears a close resemblance to a Bugs Bunny episode, where Bugs stands to the side, patiently watching as Elmer Fudd goes about destroying Bugs’ hole under the mistaken assumption that Bugs is still in it. Needless to say, we’ve been playing the role of Elmer Fudd.

This clearly violates the Elmer Fudd Rule, an old international relations principle that you won’t see mentioned much in the textbooks. It states that anytime you find yourself playing the role of Elmer Fudd, chances are you won’t obtain your objectives.

Now, from what I’ve read, Gen. McChrystal doesn’t strike me as the Elmer Fudd type. He, like everyone, knows that al-Qaida is in Pakistan. Indeed, he was already a strong advocate of expanding U.S. operations into the Pakistani FATA a few years ago. And all the indications are that his appointment signals a “wink wink, hush hush” acknowledgement that the “Afghanistan” War is about to be expanded into its de facto, as opposed to its de jure, battlefield — and that the lion’s share will take place below the visible tip of the iceberg.

Again, this raises two possibilities. One is that, of the two strategic rethinks of the Afghanistan War — i.e., President Barack Obama’s and Gen. Petraeus’ — it is the latter that actually won out. The other is that Obama, who signaled a certain willingness to take the fight against al-Qaida across the Pakistani border throughout the election campaign last year, has signed on to what amounts to a significant expansion of the mission, effectively broadening tactical operations in the name of tightening strategic obejectives. And that’s not quite the same thing as the exit strategy I sensed he had articulated a few months back.

The potential problem here is again end-state objectives and unforeseen outcomes. How do we define mission accomplished and/or victory, in that order? And more fundamentally, what is the cost-to-benefit analysis of this kind of approach to counterterrorism, knowing that the effort to drive al-Qaida out of Pakistan entails a major strategic upheaval in Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policy, and that even if successful, it will likely only migrate the threat’s center of gravity elsewhere?

That isn’t to say that since there will always be a residual problem, we shouldn’t do anything. But as I said at the time he unveiled it, Obama’s Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy seemed to appeal to too broad and disparate a political demographic for eveyone to be reading it correctly. Now that it’s about to be put into action, I think we’ll find out more precisely which part of the incoherency will be peeled off, and just who was right or wrong about it.