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Saturday, July 3, 2010



by Harlan Ullman
(This is a cross post)

Early in 2008, the Atlantic Council released a report over the signature of its then-chairman, retired Marine General James L. Jones that began, “Make no mistake: NATO is not winning in Afghanistan.” After a firestorm of protest from Brussels, the word “NATO” was changed to “the international community.” Legend has it that the report was read by then-Senator Barack Obama and put the general in contention for his current job.

If that report were released today, it could easily read “Make no mistake: we are losing in Afghanistan.”

The reasons have less to do with the current counter-insurgency campaign designed by General Stanley McChrystal and all to do with the overarching Obama strategy produced last year. Those flaws are profound and so potentially fatal that unless rectified, the chances of a George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, or even David Petraeus succeeding are not good.

First, the so-called AfPak strategy is backwards. It should be called PakAf as Pakistan is the strategic center of gravity, not Afghanistan. Yet, virtually all of our energy and resources are going into Afghanistan.

Second, the aim of the original strategy was to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and prevent their return. Yet, there are perhaps only a handful of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The rest have relocated to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other ports of call.

Third, the strategy was based on bringing a Western style of centralized government to Afghanistan. Yet that country and culture had always been and was likely always to be decentralized in its political structure.

Fourth, as the Taliban became the surrogates for al Qaeda, the strategy focused on them. Yet, the crux of the problem is dealing with the Pashtuns and enfranchising them into the body politic.

Fifth, while military forces can counter the Taliban, they cannot bring the necessary governance and governing process. Yet, we have failed to provide the civilian side of this equation and “government in a box” is a dangerous hoax.

Six, success rests on a competent and legitimate government in Kabul. Yet, the Karzai government has failed to meet either criterion.

Seventh, success is based on recruiting, training and maintaining effective and sufficient Afghan security forces. While the jury is still out, progress has been slow and episodic. Yet we have not determined who will ultimately be responsible for paying these troops as, despite recent reports of finding a trillion dollar Afghan mineral reservethat government will not have the billions to meet those bills.

Eighth, despite our understanding of the need to appreciate local culture, that is a work in progress. Unfortunately, reports that many of our translators are not fluent in Pashto or even Dari suggest that the difficulty of communicating a Western message to an Afghan audience has been increased many fold. Indeed, operations are often named in Dari even when they take place in Pashtun areas reinforcing this cultural unawareness.

Finally, the strategy assumes a largely bilateral approach. Yet, only a regional solution that engages Afghanistan’s neighbors is likely to produce a lasting effect.

General Petraeus is experienced, gifted, canny and shrewd. While he has the authority to change the campaign plan, he will have to move subtly and cleverly to correct the strategic flaws that threaten and impede success in Afghanistan. First and most importantly, he needs to reverse AfPak to PakAf. Fortunately, he knows and is respected by Pakistan’s political and military leadership. Finding the equipment the Pakistan army desperately needs will expedite this shift to PakAf.

Second, a regional approach and strategy are vital. Recommendations to that end up the chain of command can begin this process.

Third, few better understand the need for the closest political and military interactions. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker did this brilliantly in Iraq and Petraeus knew how to deal with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. This must be duplicated in Kabul.

Fourth, while protection of the Afghan people is key, Petraeus knows this must conform to their and not our cultural norms. That will include greater reliance on reintegration and dialogue with insurgent groups. The downside is that there is no equivalent to the Iraqi awakening that stood up to the mass religious killings and persecutions. The magic will be finding or inventing an equivalent.

Finally, the December assessment and the very ambiguous July 2011 date to begin considering or withdrawing troops will weigh very heavily as will the November elections here. Petraeus will be under great pressure to perform his magic. Yet, he needs time and time may be his biggest enemy.

Petraeus is among the best we have and President Obama picked the right general for the job. Let us hope that under his dress uniform or desert fighting gear the general wears a blue suit with a big Red S on his chest. For that is what is needed.

Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Co


  1. The million dollar question is: Was Petraeus really as successful as projected in Iraq?
    It took the United States 233 years (1776-2009) to amass a national debt of $1.4 trillion. This is now projected to double in the next 10 years. The national debt ceiling is going up another $2 trillion to $12.3 trillion. The federal budget deficit for 2009 hit a record $1.42 trillion; 2010 is expected to set a new record of $2 trillion.
    How long can US hang on in Afghanistan in face of increasing bashing & hostility, heroin billions notwithstanding?

  2. All nine reason can be reduced to one. Unjust war.

    All else are corollaries.

    Afghan will not accept any dictation. If peace is desired in the region listen to them. They will not talk directly except on their condition. Find trusted individuals as intermediaries. It should be done on fast track. The end will be a government of their choosing. The one they had been used to for their 4000 old history.

  3. There is logic in the reasons spelt out by Mr. Harlan Ullman for the apparent failure in Afghanistan. Two points are very pertinent: Reversal of priority from AfPak to PakAf and enfranchisement of Pashtuns in the body politic of Afghanistan. However, considering the deadline of 2011 set for start of the withdrawal, there is nothing much that can be done now on these two issues.
    This deadline has, on one hand, given a boost to the morale of the Taliban and Al-Qaida and on the other, created confusion in the minds of the allied commanders.
    Suggestion of a 'regional approach and strategy' sounds good. However, if it means bringing in India as a major player in the arena, it is going to be highly counter-productive, because it is NOT going to be acceptable to Pakistan at any level. Remember, ANY solution in Afghanistan can work without India, but NO solution is going to work without Pakistan.