One of the most remarkable qualities about General Stanley McChrystal is his remarkable candor…and now he has called the benighted campaign to secure Marjah what it is: “a bleeding ulcer.” The question is, why on earth did McChrystal decide to go in there in the first place? When he first arrived, the general questioned the enhanced US presence in Helmand Province, a lightly populated area, famous for its poppy crop. It was a good question. Counterinsurgency doctrine indicated that as many US forces as possible be sent to Kandahar Province, the center of the insurgency. But McChrystal saw several hundred Taliban fighters hunkered around the opium processing labs in Marjah and just couldn’t resist. As a result, Afghan National Army forces were pulled from other regions–including Kandarhar–for the operation; 600 Ancops–the best trained Afghan police–are stuck in Marjah as well. All of which cripples the coming effort to secure Kandarhar this summer.
In recent weeks, I’ve been hearing vast carping from the military about the pathetic effort the State Department is making in the Afghan countryside. The military has a point…the so-called “civilian surge” is smoke and mirrors. But Centcom and McChrystal have also messed up dramatically in their war planning. And the Afghan government has performed worse than either State or the Pentagon–its support for development and security programs in the crucial areas barely exists.
As I’ve noted before: this is it. The President has given the military, and the state department, and the Afghans, a year to prove that this mission is plausible. Six months are up, without any discernible progress. Yes, more US troops are on the way–but they are hardly the game-changers in this operation. The Afghans are. And what we have had is six more months of corruption and incompetence–six more months for the Pashtuns of south and east Afghanistan to reinforce their belief that the Taliban are probably a better long-term bargain than the Karzai government. I’ve seen the US military do remarkable things, small and large, since 2001; I’d never bet against them. But this does not look good.