The flap over General McChrystal’s public statement about the necessity of troop increases has mostly played itself out between my last post and this one. National Security Adviser James Jones rebuked McChrystal on Monday, telling CNN that it’s “better for military advice to come up through the chain of command.” Spencer Ackerman calls this phrasing “substantively mild and theatrically loud”, but that’s basically where the dispute ended–aside from a similar comment from Defense Secretary Gates, there were no other public statements on the matter.
As veteran Post reporter Walter Pincus notes, the significance of McChrystal’s speech was exaggerated to begin with. McChrystal went out of his way to defend Obama on multiple occasions; moreover, it’s hard to accuse McChrystal of trying to place Obama in a box when he’s submitted a range of alternatives to his commander-in-chief. (The 40,000 figure commonly cited is just the alternative that McChrystal assesses to have the lowest risk of failure.) A few liberals, like the Post’s Eugene Robinson, continue to insist that McChrystal stepped out of line. (Since I noted Cato’s use of the “Graveyard of Empires” line, I should point out that Robinson dredges up the same cliché to cast doubt on the wisdom of escalation.)
If the McChrystal controversy proved to be a tempest in a teapot, another event I wrote about last week will have more lasting consequences. After an attack on a Nuristan firebase left eight Americans dead, the Taliban claim to have “raised their flag” over the province. Supporting their claim is the fact that American troops have withdrawn from the base that was attacked, although that withdrawal had apparently been in the works for a while. (Take a look at the picture in the at article; even to someone with no tactical expertise, it’s clear that that location would be tough to defend.) Josh Foust summarizes the situation in the Kamdesh area, which is a stronghold of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s outfit, the Hezb-i Islami–along with militants fleeing Pakistan’s offensive in the NWFP–and so remote that it can only be resupplied by helicopter. Foust comes down in favor of withdrawal from the area, since our presence there isn’t sufficient to win a great deal of influence with the locals–even though this means handing a major propaganda victory to Hekmatyar’s people.
Instead of talking about political developments in the ISAF countries, I thought I should devote some time to the activities of war skeptics in the United States this week. Barbara Lee led 22 House liberals this week in sponsoring a bill barring a troop increase, but as that small number implies, most House Democrats aren’t taking any affirmative positions on Afghanistan. Key policymakers like John Murtha (chair of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee) and Ike Skelton (chair of Armed Services) have been publicly supportive of McChrystal’s strategy. One even more senior Democrat, though, is less sure. David Obey of Wisconsin, forty-year veteran and chair of the Appropriations committee, has some questions he’d like to see answered before he supports an increased commitment. First, he’d like to see a Congressional Budget Office score of a ten-year engagement in Afghanistan; then he’d like to see a more realistic assessment of our capabilities. Obey is expressing years of liberal frustration that defense spending is never subjected to the same kind of cost-benefit analyses that are (ostensibly) the cause of moderate objections to, say, health reform. Interestingly, a new addition to the skeptic camp is Zbigniew Brzezinski, who sees parallels between the American and Soviet occupations of Afghanistan and worries that making anti-Taliban operations our preoccupation will allow the Taliban to label us “enemies of Afghans”.
On the other hand, EurasiaNet has a piece about some liberals who are apparently reexamining some of their preconceptions. A Code Pink delegation to a conference in Kabul, which intended to “lobby local women to call for a fast military exit” was surprised to hear MP Shinkai Karokhail, among others, argue that a rapid withdrawal would lead to a civil war and the return of the Taliban. (Code Pink is a confrontational anti-war activist group; they were the people who interrupted McCain’s convention speech last year.) Says Karokhail: “Nobody consulted us on negotiations with the Taliban.”
It should be said, though, that Karokhail’s fear of a rapid pullout looks ever less likely. Obama specifically ruled out any major troop decrease this week, even as he continues to delay elaborating on his next steps. In fact, the debate hasn’t moved much since last week; Rajiv Chandrasekaran has a piece in the Washington Post explaining the state of play. It sounds like the emergence of a specific troop figure–McChrystal’s request for 40,000 additional men, which Gates officially forward to Obama this week–created a serious case of “sticker shock” among policymakers who may not have understood just what counterinsurgency entailed. Bruce Riedel’s “white paper” on Afghanistan–the first strategy review, earlier this year–talked about “securing the population”, an easy concept to commit to when a troop figure isn’t attached. Of course, this pulls the rug out from under McChrystal, who was under the impression that he was tasked with putting Riedel’s recommendations into practice.
This week’s election follow-up is fairly brief even as we approach the two-month anniversary of the vote. The UN remains on the defensive after the Galbraith fiasco, doubly so when the Washington Post reported that UN turnout data revealed massive discrepancies with IEC figures; Galbraith had apparently pressed special envoy Kai Eide to release the data. UNAMA has generally responded by noting that they don’t have the power to file a formal complaint with the Electoral Complaints Commission. The election audit ended on Friday, but the election still hasn’t been certified because the IEC hasn’t tallied the results yet. In another sign of an impending Karzai victory, Balkh governor Mohammed Atta Noor is making noises about “vast participation” for Abdullah backers, though he claims Abdullah doesn’t actually want to be included in the government.
Finally, while I’m always wary of letting this blog stray into Pakistan’s affairs, I should note two important developments for the Afghanistan-Pakistan-U.S. relationship triangle. First, a bombing at the Indian embassy in Kabul on Thursday killed seventeen (though no embassy staff), and Afghan Ambassador to the U.S. Said Jawad has accused Pakistan’s ISI of being behind the attack–a plausible accusation, since American officials have previously accused the ISI of helping to plan a similar (and more deadly) attack on the embassy last year. Second, Londonstani reports on the Pakistani public’s furious response to the conditions that the Kerry-Lugar bill attached to increased aid to the country. MPs and ministers have taken offense at what they see as an infringement on the country’s sovereignty, or perhaps a condescending comment on the state of Pakistan’s government.