General Stanley McChrystal has all but admitted defeat in Afghanistan. Unless he gets an additional 40,000 troops, the game is up. Unusually for a commanding officer in the middle of a war, the US commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan has gone public with his thoughts. Equally unusual, he is pleading for a "new strategy."
His appeal falls on strangely deaf American ears. Polls confirm that more than half of the US public have no interest in staying on in Afghanistan. Barack Obama, who had begun his presidency emphasizing the importance of Afghanistan and Pakistan, appears increasingly like an articulate but absent-minded professor. He needs to be a much more involved commander-in-chief. His NATO partners are already wobbling and will soon increase pressure to pull out troops altogether.
The enormous cost of losing in Afghanistan is yet to dawn on the American public. Should the US and NATO withdraw, neighboring regional powers such as Russia, China and Iran will rush to fill the vacuum. None of them will be friendly to US interests in the region. Pakistanis who already harbor considerable resentment towards America, feeling much like jilted lovers, may be pushed over the brink into fully fledged anti-Americanism. It is good to remind ourselves that Pakistan is nuclear.
McChrystal's heart is in the right place. For the first time we are hearing a military commander in the field use words like "respect" for the Afghan people and American "arrogance." McChrystal has come to understand the cultural environment in which he is fighting. He knows that Afghanistan has witnessed the defeat of many superpowers, among them imperial Britain and the Soviets. He is in no doubt as to the urgency of the task: when told by colleagues in Washington that they will fix appointments for him after consulting their calendars, he urges them to instead look at their watches.
But this is not enough. McChrystal has inherited a war with confused objectives and therefore a confused strategy. The Afghan war, we are told, is about defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida, about rebuilding the nation so that it can provide no base or haven for militant groups hostile to the west. In truth, however, al-Qaida are marginal if nonexistent in Afghanistan; the Taliban are from the Pashtun tribes and will not be defeated on their home territory. Not all Pashtun are Taliban, but virtually all Taliban are Pashtun. The stated military objectives are therefore doomed.
So, too, are the efforts at nation-building. To date this has put emphasis on pumping millions of dollars into building an Afghan army and police. Because of the highly tribal nature of Afghan society, however, the domination of these institutions by non-Pashtuns leads to inevitable accusations of bias. Moreover, security forces are only trained to react to immediate security threats, rather than providing the foundations of law and justice to all that is essential to a strong society. For decades the Afghan people have been routinely confronted by men with guns - be they Soviet, western or Taliban. They want nothing more desperately than peace, stability and security in their lives.
What then should the objective be for this war? The aim needs to be to build an administrative and judicial infrastructure that will deliver security and stability to the population and, as a result, marginalize the Taliban. Simultaneously, it can create the foundations for a modern nation.
The task is difficult, but not impossible. Excellent training complexes and facilities exist in Lahore in neighboring Pakistan. Until the Afghans have their own structures in place, their future administrators and judges can be trained quickly and proficiently in Pakistan.
Finally, free and fair elections must be held. On this there can be no compromise. The recent shambolic elections that have reconfirmed Hamid Karzai as president have also convinced Afghans that democracy is a flawed system, that perhaps their own tribal ways may be better after all. The sacking of UN envoy Peter Galbraith had all the hallmarks of an international cover-up.
The US and its NATO partners should take McChrystal very seriously and give him the troops he seeks. However, there is little point in doing so unless they also give him a new direction: victory will be unachievable without a change in objectives and strategy. Otherwise, in the near future, the US effort in Afghanistan may find itself in the graveyard of history alongside the British and the Soviets.
But it is simplistic to call this Obama's war. Nor is it America's war. It is a war for the dignity of a people who have been plunged into three decades of a most savage civil war as a result of world politics. If America walks away again, as it did after the Soviets were forced to leave Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Afghans may lose hope. This will leave them frustrated and angry. There is a popular Pashto proverb that says: "I took revenge after 100 years, and I took it too soon."
This article originally appeared in The Guardian.