McChrystal's call for troop 'surge' causes ructions in Washington

The US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is publicly campaigning for a troop surge to defeat the Taliban. He has drawn criticism from senior White House officials as well as the US defence secretary, Robert Gates.


As the debate over US military strategy in Afghanistan intensifies, the top US and NATO commander’s public campaigning for a troop “surge” has unleashed a political storm in Washington.

In a speech to a London-based think tank last week, General Stanley McChrystal called for extra troops to lead a mass counterinsurgency effort, dismissing an alternative plan floated by Vice President Joe Biden as “short-sighted”.

Biden earlier expressed support for scaling down the counterinsurgency effort to focus on air attacks against al Qaeda. But in a secret assessment – which was leaked to the US daily newspaper Washington Post – McChrystal warned that a massive troop build-up was necessary to avert a disaster in Afghanistan. Although the four-star general did not make a specific troop request, security experts believed he would ask for as many as 40,000 additional troops.

The debate over troop levels comes at a critical time for President Barack Obama. Eight years after the US-led invasion in Afghanistan toppled the Taliban regime, the US president is weighing dire military warnings such as McChrystal’s against dwindling support for the mission in Afghanistan across the country and within his own party.

McChrystal’s very public statements on this issue have drawn criticism from senior White House officials as well as his own boss, the US defence secretary, Robert Gates.

In a veiled reference to McChrystal’s comments, Gates stated that US military officers and civilians advising Obama should offer their views “candidly but privately”. Gates however refrained from supporting Biden’s proposal, leaving observers in doubt as to Obama’s preferred strategy.

Senior US officials have maintained, however, that the public airing of McChrystal’s recommendations would not force Obama’s hand on approving a troop-heavy counterinsurgency strategy.

An orchestrated leak?

In this political context, some analysts believe the leaking of the McChrystal report could have been orchestrated in agreement, or at least in complicity, with the Obama administration.

“The fact that this report has been ‘sanitized’, that classified elements were removed, points more to a concerted manoeuvre from the administration rather than a mere leak,” said Philippe Gros, a researcher at the French Strategic Research Foundation, in an emailed response to FRANCE 24.

Some analysts believe the dire nature of McChrystal’s warning in the report could sway hesitant or recalcitrant Democratic members of congress.

In an interview with FRANCE 24, Etienne de Durand, director of the Centre for Security Studies at the Paris-based IFRI think tank, who himself contributed to the McChrystal report, said there was an “intellectual confusion” over the counterinsurgency strategy advocated by the US general.

“The objective is indeed to destroy al Qaeda,” said de Durand, “but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the strategy should focus on al Qaeda. What is needed here is an indirect approach focused on securing the Afghan people so as to isolate the insurgents and their jihadist allies.”

Military and civilian researchers who contributed to the report believe drone strikes from 10,000 feet in the air can only momentarily disrupt al Qaeda. They argue that a full-fledged counterinsurgency effort is necessary to prevent the global terrorist organisation from re-establishing havens in Afghanistan.

Alongside military reinforcements, McChrystal’s strategy would require a greater civilian involvement from the international community to provide basic government services until the Afghan administration is strong enough to take over.

Election-fraud allegations complicate troop build-up

The need for additional resources provokes uneasiness among Democrats, who are afraid of embarking on a nation-building mission at a time of eroding domestic support for the Afghan war.

“The Obama administration has been hesitating for nearly a year but nobody can make the decision for the president,” said de Durand, referring to the “integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy” that Obama endorsed in March 2009.

Efforts to increase troop commitments from the 28-member NATO bloc have been further complicated by the massive fraud allegations following the August 20 Afghan presidential election.

Opponents of the McChrystal report explain that a troop “surge” in these conditions could appear as Western backing for a weak, illegitimate leader, turning foreign forces into hostile occupiers in the Afghan people's view.

“The fraud has handed the Taliban its greatest strategic victory in eight years of fighting the US and its Afghan partners,” wrote Peter Galbraith, a former UN deputy special representative to Afghanistan, who was fired after speaking publicly about the fraud cover-up.

As the war is about to enter in its ninth year, this cloud of illegitimacy will cast a long shadow over Obama’s next war councils.

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