July 22, 2009

Back from Afghanistan

Greetings, readers. I apologize for being out of the loop for these past four weeks. About five weeks ago, I was asked by General McChrystal to be part of a small team of scholars and practitioners helping to conduct his 60-day review of strategy and operations in Afghanistan. So I have spent the past month traveling around Afghanistan conducting interviews and trying to evaluate ISAF's operations.

Obviously enough, much of what we observed and concluding during my time in Afghanistan will remain confidential. But I filled two notebooks with over 160 pages of hand-written notes, and I suspect that much of what I saw and observed will leak out onto this blog over the next few months.

In this first post back, though, allow me to just make a few observations:

1. Winning in Afghanistan will be really, really difficult. I was and am still haunted by one of the last paragraphs in David B. Edwards' majesterial Heroes of the Age:

Afghanistan's central problem [is] Afghanistan itself, specifically certain profound moral contradictions that have inhibited this country from forging a coherent civil society. These contradictions are deeply rooted in Afghan culture, but they have come to the fore in the last one hundred years, since the advent of the nation-state, the laying down of permanent borders, and the attempt to establish an extensive state bureaucracy and to invest that bureaucracy with novel forms of authority and control.

Ooph. With that paragraph in mind I set about examining ISAF operations and strategy, which will largely succeed or fail based on the degree to which the institutions of the Afghan state are capable of defeating this insurgency. To say we are facing an uphill struggle in Afghanistan is an understatement. But as a famous commander once said, hard is not hopeless.

2. I was tremendously impressed by the quality of the men and women working for General McChrystal at ISAF. There is a joke going around that when Petraeus took charge in Iraq, he gathered the smartest people he could find to help him win. When McChrystal took charge in Afghanistan, meanwhile, he gathered ... well, a bunch of guys from the 75th Ranger Regiment. The truth is, General McChrystal has assembled a team of smart officers and advisers who understand the challenges of Afghanistan and are willing to speak unpleasant truths. Many of these officers are indeed men who served with McChrystal in either the Ranger Regiment or the Joint Special Operations Command. Others are men and women hired sight unseen but with reputations for exceptional intelligence or hard-won experience in counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. Col. Chris Kolenda, for example, an armor officer who successfully commanded a battalion in northeastern Afghanistan, led our team. Sarah Chayes, meanwhile, was retained from General McKiernan's staff. There are other examples -- many, in fact -- and they all speak to a commander who has cast a very wide net in search of talent to help win in Afghanistan.

3. General McChrystal understands population-centric COIN. Forget all that nonsense about a guy with decades of direct-action special operations experience not being mentally limber enough to adapt to protecting the population. About five minutes into a discussion of civilian casualties in my first week in Kabul, I watched McChrystal stand up and spell out for his staff in explicit terms exactly why killing civilians makes one operationally ineffective in an environment like Afghanistan. McChrystal is not inclined to draw attention to his storied history as a special operator. But when he tells you that it's impossible to kill your way out of this war, you believe him -- because Lord knows, he's tried.

4. My experience in Afghanistan was made great by the incredible team with whom I worked and all of those outside ISAF who invited me into their homes or over for dinner and coffee to talk about the situation in Afghanistan. As someone who is trained in the languages, history and politics of another region of the globe, I am always eager to hear from those with knowledge of Afghanistan and its peoples more nuanced and complete than my own. 

Consider this, then, the first of many posts I'll be writing on the war in Afghanistan in the coming weeks. For now, though, I am jet-lagged, in dire need of another cup of coffee, and behind on many emails. Thanks to the readership for putting up with my absence, and thanks to Ibn Muqawama for keeping this blog going while I was away.