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General McChrystal's Ghost

General Stanley McChrystal is out. But the disastrous counterinsurgency campaign he put in place is still grinding away in Afghanistan. That's got to change.

Obama made a wise decision canning the insubordinate, disrespectful McChrystal, but the president missed an obvious opportunity to examine the trends in Afghanistan and assess whether the damage extended beyond diminished respect for the chain of command. McChrystal drove the formation of a policy in Afghanistan based on assumptions about the ability of military force, exercised through a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, to stabilize Afghanistan and prevent terrorism. Virtually none of those assumptions have been borne out thus far by trends on the ground. McChrystal is gone, but his bad assumptions are still loading rifles and guiding killer drones into the skies of Afghanistan.

The two key assumptions behind McChrystal's strategy are these:

  1. Adding more troops will allow us to do something he calls "protecting the population." (The reasons I put that in quotes will become obvious in a moment.)

  2. This "protection" will allow the growth of a capable, legitimate government to grow in its shadow, which will draw the consent of the local people and lure them away from active or passive consent to the Taliban's presence.

Both of these assumptions are dangerous fantasies, and it's time we wake up from them.

First, adding more troops has not "protected" anyone. Despite the attempt by counterinsurgency hangers-on ("COINdinistas") to redefine this as merely a reduction in coalition-caused civilian casualties, COIN doctrine is clear that this refers also to protecting the population from insurgent violence as well. On this point, the troop increase has been an embarrassing failure. The U.N. reports that roadside bomb attacks have almost doubled. The insurgents killed more people this year than last year. Targeted killings have increased by 45 percent. The total civilian casualties have stayed virtually unchanged compared to last year. Meanwhile, the latest "Report on Progress [sic] towards Security and Stability in Afghanistan" admits that the insurgency is still growing in competency and geographic reach. McChrystal's first key assumption, that more troops means we can "protect the population," is a laughable farce.

Second, the hoped-for, competent, legitimate government is a no-show. This point has been made so often that it's cliche. The Kabul cartel barely seems interested in governing on the macro scale, and on the micro scale, the Afghan National Security Forces are so fraught with drug abuse and corruption that they actually cause instability when they show up in town. In fact, almost all Afghan enlisted recruits are illiterate and can't read a rifle manual, according to TIME. McChrystal's second key assumption is a cruel joke.

The Marjah fiasco perfectly illustrates the point. Our insertion of more troops has not stopped the insurgents from attacking and killing those who support the Kabul cartel, and the "government in a box" was apparently shipped to the wrong address. When Ambassador Richard Holbrooke visited a few days ago, he was greeted with a hail of gunfire and a suicide bomber. McChrystal called Marjah a "bleeding ulcer." I call it the writing on the wall.

Accepting McChrystal's resignation was a wise move that protects the principle of civilian control of the military. It's necessary, but not sufficient. Even as he departs, the strategy he designed is ramping up. We need to exorcise McChrystal's ghost, and reverse the escalation strategy before it comes back to haunt us.

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