The Inevitable Collapse of McChrystal's Afghan War Plan
Bound to Fail
By FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY
Nisos Kos, Greece
In the 11 May issue of CounterPunch, apparently based on White House and Pentagon sources, Gareth Porter, one of the most able journalists covering the Afghan debacle, reported that General McChrystal’s war plan is in the early stages of unravelling. To appreciate why this was entirely predictable, consider please, the following:
On January 2, during an interview with Drew Brown of Stars and Stripes, McChrystal described his plan to create an ‘arc of security’ in the most densely populated regions of Southern Afghanistan. The green shaded area in the following map of Afghanistan overlays McChystal’s arc on the distribution of population densities. I constructed it from the information contained in Brown’s interview. As you can see, McChrystal plan opens his biggest military campaign to date by invading a region that has seen many invasions and much fighting during the last two thousand years, including operations by Alexander the Great (also shown on the chart), both of the 19th Century Anglo-Afghan Wars, and the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s.
Historically minded tribal cultures, like the Pashtun, have had plenty of time to learn and remember the strengths and weaknesses of this terrain by resisting these invaders using the timeless arts of guerrilla war. Note, for example, the stunning similarity of Alexander the Great’s invasion route in the figure to that of the Soviet’s shown here.
McChrystal’s first move in implementing his pacification strategy was to invade Marjah (which is in the western part of the shaded area) in mid February. The aim of this operation was a variation of Marshall Lyautey’s ink spot theory: namely to clear the Taliban out of Marjah, secure the area, and prevent the return of the Taliban. Success in this operation would set the stage spreading the area of pacification by clearing the Taliban out of the more populated city of Qandahar. And so, moving from west to east along Alexander’s (and the Soviet’s) route, the ink spot would spread to Qandahar in the eastern part of the arc.
Without being critical, I note that neither Porter nor his sources mention the role of Afghan army and police forces in the unravelling of McChrystal’s plan. Porter is certainly aware of these limitations, having written several important reports on this subject. Nevertheless, the implication of the Taliban re-infiltration of the Marjah region is clear: the Afghan security forces in the region are either insufficient or ineffective (or both) to perform their job of protecting the people by permanently cleansing the area of Taliban.
The inability to spread the “ink spot” McChrystal tried to insert with the Marjah offensive has its roots in the central flaw highlighted last September in my critique of McChrystal’s escalation plan, which was submitted to President Obama last summer. This inability also means that US forces will be needed to provide security to the Marjah region, if McChrystal sticks to his strategic aim. This requirement, which would have been easily foreseen, had McChrystal presented Mr. Obama with a straightforward assessment of the very limited capabilities of the Afghan security forces, will now result in our forces being spread out to protect this region, assuming we want to protect the Marjah “ink spot.” The deployment of US pacification troops will probably take the form of an array of strong points and outposts, backed up with quick reaction reinforcements, kept on alert in nearby bases, together with airpower.
If our troops are being deployed this way, they will be unavailable for the upcoming Qandahar offensive. Moreover, they will become vulnerable to being attacked piecemeal in a series of irregular, but frequent hit and run attacks on bases and supply routes. This kind of rope-a-dope strategy will keep our troops on edge and put them under continual mental and physical stress — and they will be vulnerable to being ground down much like the British troops were last summer. The continuing pressure will naturally increase the jumpiness of our soldiers and marines and, if past is prologue, will likely increase their trigger-happiness, including more calls for artillery and air support. More firepower means more civilian deaths in the “pacified” region, and the rising bloodshed will play into the Taliban’s hands by alienating the hearts and minds of local population we claim to be protecting, a process which is already in progress.
This hydra of emerging pressures, which is probably just beginning to be appreciated, is probably why the looming offensive to secure Qandahar that McChrystal was broadcasting in April is now being scaled back in its aims.
Later this summer, as these problems become more apparent and American mid-term elections loom, we can expect to be subjected to a unseemly spectacle finger pointing and a search for scapegoats. In the end, the debacle will be fault of Obama and by extension the Democrat’s, because the President ignored Sun Tzu’s timeless wisdom, when he approved McChrystal’s fatally flawed plan, despite the cabled warnings of retired Army general Karl Eikenberry, his ambassador to Afghanistan.
Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at email@example.com