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Story Publication logo September 1, 2009

Afghanistan: McChrystal ball


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In 2008, there were over 2,100 civilians casualties across Afghanistan. US airstrikes accounted for...


ARRIVING at the end of the deadliest month yet for American forces in Afghanistan and amid allegations of widespread vote-rigging in its recent presidential election, General Stanley McChrystal's review of the Afghan war comes at a gloomy time. In a strategic assessment this week, General McChrystal, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has described the situation on the ground as serious. He tempered his gloom by saying that the war is still winnable but argued that a new strategy is needed.

The thrust of General McChrystal's argument is not new. He has stressed the need to protect the population, before hunting insurgents, for some time. Indeed, the Americans claimed to be doing exactly that long before he showed up in June. But his report puts greater emphasis than before on winning hearts and minds, for example by sharply curtailing air strikes.

The details of his report are unclear, but the general is thought to have asked for a big increase in Afghan troops and police. The review appears to side-step, for now, the question of whether more American troops are needed in Afghanistan (though his entourage talks openly about the need for them and he may well ask for more in the coming weeks). As Americans become increasingly wary about their involvement in this war, sending more soldiers may not be a popular option for Barack Obama.

A recent ABC News/Washington Post survey showed that, for the first time, a majority of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting. In the first eight months of his year, 182 American soldiers have been killed. As American troops, along with their British, Canadian and Dutch counterparts, press deeper into the militants' southern stronghold, rising casualties may make the war even more unpopular.

The furore surrounding the presidential election has made things worse. Since the vote in August, Afghan officials have been inundated with charges of fraud, mostly committed in favour of President Hamid Karzai. His main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, has presented evidence of forged ballots, coercion and other irregularities. With the Electoral Complaints Commission now saddled with more than 2,000 complaints, Mr Abdullah says that the scale of the fraud is such that he will not accept defeat.

As the post-election disputes drag on, the danger of serious unrest increases. According to the latest count, Mr. Karzai's share of the vote stands at 46%, still shy of the 50% plus one needed to avoid a run-off. Rumours abound that America is trying to broker a coalition government, though its embassy and the leading factions deny this.

If Mr Karzai does win, as seems likely, he will have a difficult time of it. Much of Afghanistan lies beyond the government's limited reach. Its role is non-existent across much of south and east of the country where the Taliban are in control, and remains tenuous in pockets of the north. Meanwhile, the former warlords whose support Mr Karzai secured in the run-up to the elections will have to be rewarded with cabinet posts and spoils. The return of controversial figures like Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek militia leader who delivered tens of thousands of votes to Mr Karzai, will only confirm a disheartening sense among Afghans that their vote has been flogged to the highest bidder.

Grim as the situation looks, General McChrystal is confident that additional American forces will help by making Afghans feel safer. Chasing and killing members of the Taliban would come second to protecting Afghan citizens if he gets his way. For the time being, it looks as though he will. But as he well knows, security cannot hold without political consensus, no matter how many reinforcements he manages to summon.





war and conflict reporting


War and Conflict

War and Conflict

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