President Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal began their decisive one-on-one talk in the Oval Office at 9:51 a.m., according to ABC’s Jake Tapper. Whether or not McChrystal loses his command, all signs point to Obama sticking with his current Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. If so, that means that operational and tactical changes are likely in Afghanistan, but not strategic ones. So what are the key aspects of McChrystal’s approach in Afghanistan? And what are some of the objective constraints and obstacles that he or the next commander will have to confront?
[Security1] Here’s a guide to examine the key “inflection points” that characterize McChrystal’s tenure, along with some criticism of them. The purpose of the guide is to test the strength of the arguments for and against what McChrystal has done in Afghanistan thus far, with the caveat that not all of the 30,000 surge troops that Obama ordered for Afghanistan have arrived yet.
1. Protecting the population. Everything McChrystal did and didn’t do in Afghanistan was predicated on one proposition: The key to rolling back the Taliban’s influence in Afghanistan was to make it irrelevant or discredited in the eyes of Afghan civilians, and the way to accomplish that was to keep Afghan civilians safe from harm — either from insurgent attack or from the unintended consequences of U.S. actions. It’s easy to forget that before McChrystal arrived in command, the paucity of U.S. troops in Afghanistan meant that air strikes were a key tool of U.S. commanders, and the resultant civilian casualties were a driver of outrage among Afghans and eroded ties with President Hamid Karzai. McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan, restricted the use of air strikes, and McChrystal restricted them even further. McChrystal’s counterinsurgency guidance for his troops instructed them that cutting off engagements with insurgents in populated areas was the wiser course, given the objective is to secure Afghan support for the mission through providing Afghan security.
But right now it looks like we have neither. The United Nations’ most recent report on Afghanistan found violence rising in the south, where the bulk of McChrystal’s efforts are focused. (More on that later.) Karzai had to guarantee local support for an impending series of operations to secure Kandahar that are in their opening phases. Some U.S. troops in the field have complained that the rules of engagement are too restrictive, as Rolling Stone reported, putting their lives at greater risk.
The next commander will have to ask if McChrystal’s theory of population-centricity was incorrect. If so, that augurs an even more violent fight in Afghanistan, and raises questions about whether and how U.S. forces will seek to secure local support for their operations, or if they’ll just seek to find Taliban — who blend in with the population — and kill or capture them. Alternatively, the next commander might assess that McChrystal’s theory went too far, and attempt to recalibrate the balance between U.S. force protection and securing the population. That includes modifying the rules of engagement to allow greater latitude — and also greater prospects for civilian casualties. Michael Cohen, a critic of counterinsurgency, hinted that he thinks that’s the right way to go:
We should go out of our way to protect civilians in Afghanistan, but if in doing so it undermines the war effort there or leads to likely failure then we shouldn’t take the gloves off – we should adopt a new strategy that takes into account the actual capabilities of our armed forces.
That sounds great, but no one has yet articulated how that balance ought to be struck.
2. Focusing on the south. A corollary of the first point. The south is home to more concentrated areas of Afghan residence, as well as being a major source of Taliban financing through the drug trade and its spiritual home. All previous commanders in Afghanistan focused their scarce resources on eastern Afghanistan, to try to disrupt the “rat lines,” as senior U.S. commanders in eastern Afghanistan described them to me in 2007, that allow insurgent infiltration and exfiltration to the tribal areas of neighboring Pakistan. Instead, McChrystal closed some of the remote combat outposts on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and withdrew from bloody and hard-to-defend terrain like the Korengal Valley — a place that counterinsurgency critic Doug Macgregor, a retired Army colonel, described as “the one place where [U.S. troops] would be overwhelmed and overrun.” (It happened.)
Even so, the next commander will have to ask if focusing on the south allows the insurgency too much free rein, even as Obama’s strategy calls for the erosion of insurgent safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “We should’ve owned that area, owned that border,” said Malcolm Nance, a Special Forces veteran. “It looks like we’re not eating fighting the war [there] at this point.”
The U.S. military command in eastern Afghanistan has received exactly one of the surge brigades, putting its strength, according to Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, McChrystal’s deputy, at about 30,000 troops. It’s unclear how the new commander for eastern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. John Campbell, will be able to implement even a modified counterinsurgency strategy to protect about 10 million Afghans spread out across great and remote distances. Or is the south properly the key area of focus, and Campbell will simply need to hold on?
3. Supplementing the east with high-intensity Special Operations Forces. This has been the least-explored aspect of McChrystal’s approach in Afghanistan and quite possibly the exception to his population-protection approach. In response to the paucity of troops in the east and the command focus on the south, Special Operations Forces have conducted secretive and violent raids on suspected insurgent locations. Those raids have caused many of the most outrage-inducing civilian casualty incidents of McChrystal’s tenure — exactly what his broader approach has considered the most deleterious thing to U.S. prospects for success — and leading him to seek greater control over Special Operations units that are not entirely under his command. The next commander is going to have to assess whether what some have called “COIN for the south, counterterrorism for the east” is the right way to go, and whether the bifurcation in command that exists between regular forces and Special Operators is tenable. That decision flows logically from the central question about the value of population protection.
4. Emphasizing the training mission. Arguably the most successful aspect of McChrystal’s tenure so far. Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the head of the new combined U.S./NATO mission to train and equip Afghan security forces, has had his efforts praised to Congress for putting the outfitting of a capable Afghan Army ahead of schedule. Training the Afghans to take over security responsibilities is a consensus position within the administration and across party lines in Congress, as it signifies the most likely prospect for extrication from a stable Afghanistan. But there’s a lot more work that needs to be done, and the next commander will have to balance how much of his resources he’s willing to devote to the training mission with how much he’s willing to devote to warfighting. Since Obama is unlikely to back away from his July 2011 deadline for beginning to transfer security responsibilities to Afghan forces, it’s a resourcing question that could cut either way: either accelerate fighting ahead of July 2011 or double down on training to ensure confidence in the transition.
5. **Kandahar. **A subset of the focus on the south, but a huge, pressing issue: Should the next commander keep to McChrystal’s plans for a “process” of taking parts of the city back from the Taliban by providing a “rising tide” of greater U.S. forces and (hopefully) Afghan governance? Karzai ultimately backed the mission. But much of it will depend on entrenching local powerbrokers to supplement U.S. efforts, something a brand new task force was stood up to confront. Will the next commander keep to a schedule that McChrystal had to amend? Or will he opt to emphasize the fight in a different area?
These are just five of a host of immediate questions that McChrystal’s successor will have to face — and, if McChrystal stays in command, McChrystal himself will still have to confront.
E-Verify Mandate Begins Today
The Obama administration today begins implementation of a new mandate to require all federal contractors to check the legal status of their employees to confirm
EPA Administrator Addresses Concerns About Oil Spill Waste Management
At a hearing of the national oil spill commission today, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson addressed concerns about waste disposal from
EPA administrator fires back at critics in op-ed
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson (Pic by USACEpublicaffairs, via Flickr) EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson penned a new op-ed for the Los Angeles Times , criticizing House Republicans desperately seeking to undermine the authority of the agency they have dubbed a “job killer.” Arguing that the environment affects red states and blue states alike, Jackson writes that “it is time for House Republicans to stop politicizing our air and water.” As head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Jackson has faced harsh criticism from House Republicans and GOP presidential candidates who say the agency’s regulations are an undue burden on businesses that have to cut jobs simply to comply with clean water and air rules. Presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann has pledged to end the EPA if she takes office. “Since the beginning of this year, Republicans in the House have averaged roughly a vote every day the chamber has been in session to undermine the Environmental Protection Agency and our nation’s environmental laws,” writes Jackson.
EPA administrator defends allowing Florida to write its own water pollution rules
The EPA seal (Pic via sentryjournal.com) The Environmental Protection Agency has come under fire for its decision to allow the state of Florida to write its own water pollution rules (known as “numeric nutrient criteria”). EPA Regional Administrator Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming is now firing back, writing that the Agency commends the state Department of Environmental Protection for its draft of a proposed standard. A host of environmental groups filed suit in 2008, seeking to compel the EPA to implement a strict set of water pollution standards in Florida, arguing that the state was in violation of the Clean Water Act.
EPA administrator says federal nutrient criteria is a ‘myth’
In testimony given late last week, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said that false accusations about her agency’s numeric nutrient criteria to govern Florida waterways are proving to be a detriment to their implementation. # Testifying before the House Agriculture Committee, Jackson said her agency’s work was often “mischaracterized” and addressed several myths surrounding its work
EPA Analysis Says Climate Bill’s Cost for Households Would Be ‘Modest’
All the attention on the energy front today is going to the BP spill, but the Environmental Protection Agency quietly released its long-anticipated analysis of
EPA announces hold on nutrient standards if Florida can come up with own criteria
The EPA announced today that it is now prepared to withdraw a portion of its proposed numeric nutrient criteria (a set of standards governing water pollution in inland waters) and delay the portion related to estuarine waters, to allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to develop its own criteria. # From a statement released by the EPA earlier today: # EPA recognizes that states have the primary role in establishing and implementing water quality standards for their waters. Therefore, EPA is prepared to withdraw the federal inland standards and delay the estuarine standards if FDEP adopts, and EPA approves, their own protective and scientifically sound numeric standards
EPA biologist says fracking may be partly to blame for West Virginia fish kill
New documents obtained by an environmental news service show that an EPA analyst believes that wastewater from fracking may be partly responsible for a fish kill in a West Virginia river. Scientific American reports : U.S
EPA Chief Overruled Calif. Waiver, Too
The Washington Post reported in March that EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson was overruled by the White House in setting an ozone standard. Now, documents
EPA and California Near Deal on Fuel Efficiency Standards
Two weeks ago, the Obama administration raised fuel efficiency standards by an average of two miles per gallon -- a modest change that disappointed some