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A New General, and a New War, in Afghanistan

14 minute read
Mark Thompson/Washington and Aryn Baker/Kabul

The headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul looks more like a college campus than the nerve center of a military operation involving more than 90,000 troops from 41 countries, its staff officers roaming the halls in each nation’s distinct patterns of camouflage. On July 3, on a wooden deck at the back of his office in the compound, shaded by trees and a garden umbrella, U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, who recently became ISAF’s commander, and that of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, sat down to discuss his new role. Tall, lanky and earnest, with the loping stride of a long-distance runner–McChrystal runs 10 miles before his morning coffee–the general went to Afghanistan after a top job with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. He knows Afghanistan well. The conflict there, McChrystal told TIME, is a “tough war, a very tough war.”

That it most certainly is. In October it will have been eight years since U.S. forces first went into combat in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda and its local supporters in the Taliban. That makes the war there the second longest (after Vietnam) in U.S. history. More than 1,200 coalition troops have died in Afghanistan; some 730 of the dead were American, but other nations have suffered too. Britain has lost 175 soldiers in the conflict, and Canada 124. And the deaths in uniform are the easy ones to count: they do not encompass the thousands of Afghan villagers who have been killed by the Taliban or by errant coalition actions. Last year alone, 828 civilians were killed by U.S., allied or Afghan troops, 552 of them in air strikes.

It is precisely because so many Afghans have been killed that the war is, in effect, starting anew. McChrystal’s task is to recalibrate the war effort so local people can see that the coalition’s actions increase their security, in turn allowing them to get on with their lives. Up to now, the deaths of Afghans in the fighting have done little to aid the allies and a lot to turn locals against foreign forces and the government of President Hamid Karzai, which those forces sustain. This is a place–as British and Russian armies discovered and were sent packing after their discoveries–where the waters of vengeance run deep. “If the Americans kill an Afghan father, the son will take revenge and pick up a gun and will stand against foreigners,” says Abdul Qadir, 38, who runs a shoe-shine business on a Kabul street. “People hate Americans,” echoes Ezatullah, a driver from the town of Maidan Shahr, “because they kill innocent people.”

To drain the hatred and give Afghanistan the room to build institutions and an economy that just might, one day, heal the wounds of 30 years of war, President Barack Obama and his generals are shifting strategies. Their new doctrine emphasizes protecting the Afghan people over killing insurgents. “What we really want is the equivalent of a peaceful takeover, where the Taliban are forced out,” McChrystal told TIME. Three days later, the general issued a “tactical directive” to ISAF forces reinforcing the point: “We will not win based on the number of Taliban we kill,” McChrystal wrote, “but instead on our ability to separate insurgents from the people.” To that end, the directive explicitly enjoined force leaders “to scrutinize and limit the use of force like close air support against residential compounds and other locations likely to produce civilian casualties.” In truth, the new policy was already being applied: on July 2, nearly 4,000 Marines and 650 Afghan troops stormed into Helmand province in southern Afghanistan aboard helicopters and armored vehicles. But within hours, the Marines issued a statement declaring they had “not used artillery … and no bombs have been dropped from aircraft” in the offensive’s opening thrust. You know a war has turned topsy-turvy when U.S. Marines brag about the weapons they’re not using.

The change in tactics and command (on June 15, McChrystal was brought in to replace Army General David McKiernan, who had led ISAF since June 2008) was necessitated by a grim truth. The war in Afghanistan is not going well. The Taliban, funded in large measure by the opium trade, which is centered in Helmand, now controls wide swaths of Afghanistan. Over the past four months, a recent U.N. report says, the number of “assassinations, abductions, incidents of intimidation and the direct targeting of aid workers” has been higher than last year. Increasing numbers of foreign fighters–“most likely affiliated with al-Qaeda”–are fighting alongside the Taliban. “There is no question but that the situation has deteriorated over the course of the past two years,” General David Petraeus, who as chief of U.S. Central Command oversees the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, said recently.

The Second Afghan War

The offensive in Helmand is the first step in what has become America’s second Afghan war. The Marines have met little resistance, although U.S. deaths spiked elsewhere in the country. On July 6, seven U.S. troops were killed outside Helmand–the highest daily toll in nearly a year. Using an age-old strategy, the insurgents seem to have melted away when pressured, only to pop up and attack elsewhere. In Helmand, U.S. troops will set up small outposts instead of pulling back when the operation is done. They’ll live near the locals and offer protection in advance of Afghanistan’s Aug. 20 presidential election. Then McChrystal’s forces and civilian advisers will begin trying to build economic and governmental institutions.

Terrorism and the illicit drug trade have flourished in Afghanistan because the lack of a functioning economy has let warlords fill the vacuum. That needs to change. The U.S. recently announced, for example, that it is shifting its antipoppy efforts from destroying the opium-producing flowers to encouraging different crops. But that’s quite a challenge: poppies are easy to grow and net four times as much money per acre as wheat. So farmers will need new cash crops to replace the poppies and newly built roads to get such goods to market without paying bribes along the way. The best soldiers in the world can’t manage every step of that process, which is why Karl Eikenberry, the new U.S. ambassador in Kabul and a retired Army lieutenant general who served twice in Afghanistan, says, “The military can help set the conditions for success. But it is not sufficient for success.”

That said, without the military doing its bit, there will be no success to measure. So part of the Obama Administration’s strategy is to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, from 57,000 now to 68,000 by the fall. The extra troops should help bring security to parts of Afghanistan that lack it, but McChrystal is clear that security alone is but a means to an end. “The point of security,” he says, “is to enable governance … My metric is not the enemy killed, not ground taken: it’s how much governance we’ve got.” Decent governance, the thinking goes–providing the rule of law and economic opportunity–will persuade those who take up arms because they have no other economic alternative to stop fighting. And those who don’t use words like governance agree. “If people have work,” says Mohammad Ismael, a 58-year-old Kabul resident, “I don’t think they will fight.”

Unshocked, Unawed

The new strategy, with its limits on actions that risk civilian casualties, represents a sea change in U.S. military doctrine. It was only six years ago that Air Force General Richard Myers, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, predicted that a shock-and-awe strategy would bomb Saddam Hussein’s Iraq into submission. That–and the tech-heavy force that then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sent into Iraq to stumble and falter for four years–hewed to the American way of war, one that was equal parts laser beams and hubris. But the military has rethought its strategy. “You can shock and awe human beings,” McChrystal says, “but it doesn’t last. I’ve seen operations where kinetic strikes would go in on a target, and the enemy would come out shooting. They weren’t awed.”

Instead of relying on brute force, McChrystal has to find more subtle ways of dealing with an Afghan insurgency that grows out of a patchwork of motivations based on tribal allegiances, Islamic fundamentalism and the strategies of warlords eager to keep what has been theirs for generations. “I am not sure,” McChrystal says, “there are two different people out there with the same reason for the fight.” He has to untangle the various threads in this skein and then determine what action–economic development, strong government, death–works best in each case.

And he has to be a diplomat too. Perhaps the most important military action in the region isn’t happening in Afghanistan but across the border in Pakistan. Afghanistan and Pakistan, McChrystal says, are “unique situations that are linked inextricably.” Islamabad’s fitful offensive against the Taliban in Pakistan has successfully drained resources from the Taliban in Afghanistan. “Money is drying up,” Colonel John Spiszer, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, along the border, said on June 23. Over the past year, the going prices for guns and ammo “have almost doubled,” he noted. “That’s a great sign.” Such pressure on safe havens in Pakistan will reduce hit-and-run attacks across the border.

But however much the Pakistanis help, McChrystal does not have an easy job. He concedes that Afghanistan’s current security forces–86,000 soldiers and 82,000 national police–aren’t enough to protect the country. And U.S. commanders have made it clear that even with reinforcements in the pipeline, they don’t have enough troops to run a full-fledged counterinsurgency campaign. That is one reason U.S. commanders came to rely on airpower, which only perpetuated a feedback loop that made the job of winning trust among Afghans even harder.

Long Career, Fresh Eyes

In Washington there had been a sense for months that the Afghan train was off the track and that McKiernan–an able armor officer–wasn’t the right fit. On May 11, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, with Obama’s blessing, tapped McChrystal for the Afghan post, saying “fresh eyes” were needed on the war.

McChrystal’s official career is 33 years long, but he has, in effect, been in the Army for all his 54 years–both his father and paternal grandfather were Army officers, his father making it to two-star general. After graduating from West Point in 1976–31 years after his father–McChrystal climbed the Army ladder. He’s seen some tragedies. In 1994, McChrystal was a lieutenant colonel with the 82nd Airborne Division when a flaming F-16 jet plowed into a parked C-141 at Pope Air Force Base. The cargo plane’s 55,000 gallons of jet fuel erupted into a massive fireball, killing 18 of McChrystal’s troops as they prepared for parachute jumps on a sunny North Carolina afternoon.

Asked about the incident, McChrystal pauses for nine seconds, his mood shifting from animated to muted. “We sent our own paratroopers to bury each of our own killed,” he says, saying the tragedy taught him the importance of teamwork. Others say it showed his leadership. McChrystal and his wife Annie attended all the funerals and memorial services. “That was real moral courage,” says Dan McNeill, who was McChrystal’s commander at the time and who later ran the war in Afghanistan. “I don’t know if I could have done that.”

In between stints with various special-operations units, McChrystal pulled tours at the Council on Foreign Relations and Harvard. Before coming to the Pentagon, he spent 2003 to 2008 heading up the Joint Special Operations Command, the secret corps of Army Delta Force and Navy Seals based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, although McChrystal deployed regularly to its forward post inside Iraq. In 2006 his unit succeeded in tracking down and killing Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. McChrystal’s record has not been without controversy. After the 2004 death by friendly fire of former NFL player and Army Ranger Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, Pentagon investigators said McChrystal provided information that misleadingly suggested Tillman died at the enemy’s hands when recommending him for the Silver Star. But the Army decided that McChrystal had “no reasonable basis” for second-guessing officers who drafted the recommendation.

Fit as a tuning fork, McChrystal has a certain monkish mythology about him that his aides seem keen to foster. In Afghanistan, they say, he gets up at 4 a.m. to run and e-mail before his workday really begins with an 8:30 video briefing with his regional commanders across the country. His iPod and Kindle (the newest model) are stocked by his wife with serious tomes on Pakistan, Lincoln and Vietnam. Right now, he is reading William Maley’s 2002 book The Afghanistan Wars, a catalog of the long list of foreign failures in Afghanistan. McChrystal famously eats little during the day, recently only picking at an Afghan spread featuring four kinds of meat. To the chagrin of Afghans, who see drinking tea as an inalienable human right, he scrapped a morning tea break at a recent security briefing in Kandahar, and aides grumble, nicely, that he sees others’ demands for lunch as a sign of weakness. (But he makes up for it at dinner: a colleague says a typical evening repast may include a cheeseburger, a fajita burrito, a pile of fries and ice cream. And maybe a brownie.) And if it weren’t for uniforms and the help of his wife, he wouldn’t have a clue what to wear. His tenor voice is soft, but his gaze–fixed on his target–can make subordinates squirm. If he takes off his glasses, says an aide, “you know you’re in trouble.”

Watching in Washington

Military policy in Afghanistan is now in the hands of this likable and very, very focused soldier. An Administration and a nation are waiting to see if his plan is any better than the one it replaced. Time is in short supply. Some in Washington are leery of Afghanistan’s becoming another Vietnam. Representative David Obey, the Wisconsin lawmaker who chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee, said in May he’s giving the White House a year to show progress–however defined–in Afghanistan. But at his confirmation hearing, McChrystal said he expects it will take 18 to 24 months to see whether things are turning around, and talking to TIME, he was clear that it will take even longer than that to make “permanent progress.”

Success is by no means assured. McChrystal’s order to keep Afghan civilian casualties low, for example, may be politically savvy, but in the short term it can be militarily fraught. Before the Helmand offensive began, U.S. troops called in an air strike on a compound after coming under fire from it. A number of civilians died, and McChrystal was not pleased. “I want you all to stop dropping compounds,” he quietly told the 100 members of his staff gathered inside his command center and others linked via video. “Yes, sir,” responded the commander involved. Three days later, when troops in Helmand came under fire from such a compound, they followed his order. “We made the decision to isolate the compound and not destroy it,” a Marine captain said, “because we couldn’t confirm if civilians were inside.”

The good news is that the compound wasn’t bombed, no civilians were killed and no additional measure of poison was added to the bitter brew that has turned Afghans against the U.S. and its allies. The bad news is that the insurgents escaped from the compound before U.S. forces had a chance to secure it. The Marines call the need to tolerate the frustration of such incidents “tactical patience.” Just how patient Americans and their Commander in Chief will turn out to be with Stan McChrystal’s new way of fighting the Afghan war remains to be seen.

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