The Washington Post reported a secret 66-page memo from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan to the top brass in Washington that said without more forces in the next year, the conflict "will likely end in failure." Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal states, "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."
The opinion that the mission will likely end in failure and that defeating the insurgency is no longer possible stands opposite to the one expressed to me by Canada's Brig. Gen. Denis Thompson when I interviewed him last spring. Thompson was the commander of the Canadian forces in Afghanistan and returned from a nine-month tour in February.
It could be that McChrystal makes these defeatist noises in order to make his job easier. The more troops and more resources he has, the less thinking and less deciding necessary on his part. Or it could be that he is preparing the ground for a less than boffo success story by the end of his tour.
What is ridiculous, however, are the statements that without more troops the mission will likely end in failure and that defeat of the insurgency will no longer be possible.
According to Thompson, at any one time in Afghanistan there are between 20,000 and 25,000 Taliban. There is a reserve of Taliban in Pakistan, and these fellows do their tours, and return to Pakistan for R&R similar to what Western forces do. But at any one time, the 60,000 U.S./NATO/International Security Assistance Force troops currently on the ground in Afghanistan are opposed by only a third of their number of Taliban. And the Western troops are the best trained, best equipped troops in the world while the Taliban are a rag-tag outfit of illiterate, poorly equipped hill tribesmen.
The Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police add a further 150,000 security personnel, raising the ratio over the Taliban to at least 9-to-1. The ANA/ANP receive equipment and training from the Western forces. How is it possible that the Taliban could win against odds as long as this?
What is evident from reading McChrystal's prescriptions is the confusion under which the Western effort is laboring. In the first place, it supports a government that is admittedly corrupt. It places captured insurgents into civilian prisons and is astonished to find that ordinary criminals are radicalized into insurgents. It applies military force in a doctrinaire way to a situation that requires a lot of discretion and the application of native intelligence by the leadership on the ground. It is fearful of the "human rights" enforcers at home, inordinately fearful of taking casualties, and is especially fearful of accusations of imperialism.
The result of this confusion is that all these friendly forces remain curled up in a defensive posture on their bases and leave the countryside to the Taliban.
The statement that there will be reached a point at which defeating the Taliban will no longer be possible stands no scrutiny at all. The people of Afghanistan would have to be prepared to throw themselves into the arms of the Taliban for the insurgency to succeed, and this is not about to happen.
First, only 15 percent to 20 percent of the Afghan people in the Kandahar sector support the Taliban, according to Thompson. Second, the Afghans already tried Taliban rule once, and were happy to see it gone. Finally, the Taliban insurgency is a tribal phenomenon. Outside the Pashtun, there is no support for the Taliban among the tribes of Afghanistan.
The problem faced in Afghanistan by Western military forces is not the superior force they face. The problem is political, and the politics lies in the capitals of the Western powers, especially Washington.
President Obama is uniquely positioned to solve McChrystal's problem for him, just as only President Richard Nixon could go to China. The question is whether Obama is willing to solve this, since he and members of his Cabinet were part of the problem in the first place.
It was Obama and the extreme left wing of the Democratic Party that blackened the Bush administration with accusations of torture at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, whose law firm represented Gitmo detainees, is even now investigating CIA operatives and lawyers of the Bush Justice Department for possible prosecution and disbarment for war crimes. Obama protected himself from Republican accusations of weakness by declaring the Afghan war the good war, one he would fight.
McChrystal is now about to make Obama pay a price for saying that. The price will be either in additional American blood and treasure, or in Obama's political capital with the left wing of his party.
Vincent J. Curtis is a Canadian writer.