The US general responsible for the West's forces in Afghanistan is already a media celebrity. General Stanley McChrystal has even been given the gushing approval of 60 Minutes. And, while he may not have much of a grip on the Taliban and tribal insurgency, he's got the Obama administration in a headlock.
McChrystal wants Obama to sweep eight years of Pentagon and NATO failure under the carpet and, instead, start over. He wants a do-over. He wants his chance to wage this war just as each of his predecessors had their turn. And, the very best part, he wants to hang the political risk for his strategy around Obama's neck.
The general and his boss, even bigger general David Petraeus, have Obama in a box. Someone on their side leaked McChrystal's report calling for more forces for Afghanistan or else failure. There it is. Give us another 40,000 troops Mr. President or we'll make our failure your failure but, if you do give us those extra troops, we're still not on the hook to win. We may even be back for more, a lot more.
McChrystal wants more troops so that he can stage a tactical retreat. He's proposing to yield control of the countryside to the insurgent/rebels and, instead, concentrate on defending population centres. Any way you cut it, that's a retreat.
The Petraeus/McChrystal tag team are falling back on the cities. They're presenting this as a strategy when, in fact, it's not their strategy but the other side's that's behind this. The insurgent/rebels now pose a genuine threat to Afghanistan's cities, notably Kabul and Kandahar city. If those centers fall, it is indeed over and everyone knows it. The insurgent/rebels will gain a critical mass at which point our side's warlords, in the time-honoured Afghan tradition, will begin to defect. The insurgent/rebel leaders are trying to force the West into the same untenable position previously occupied by the Soviets - a foreign army propping up a nub government at war with all the tribes.
It doesn't help that Obama's key general has aspirations of someday winning the Republican presidential nomination. In my opinion Petraeus has a pretty direct interest in making sure that, when the music stops, he's not the one who winds up without a chair.
If the insurgent/rebels succeed in forcing the White House and Pentagon to accept urban warfare in Afghanistan it hands them several powerful victories. It's an enormous victory in the Taliban's war, the political war, the war for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. The public perception, right or wrong, will be that the Western forces have been driven to retreat.
Undermining the public's confidence in the willingness and ability of the government and government forces to protect them is the Holy Grail of the insurgent/rebel's political war. The West's problem is made all the worse by the inability or unwillingness of the central government to establish itself as viable, effective and honest. We're propping up an unnecessarily unpopular and hopelessly corrupt regime and we don't have the means to change that.
As Western forces fall back on the population centers, so does Afghanistan's central government. Kabul's already tenuous grip on the countryside, without which it cannot become viable, is lost.
If Obama gives McChrystal the additional 40,000 troops already demanded, his generals will probably be back for more before long. Why's that? Look to David Petraeus for the answer to that one. He commanded the brain trust that wrote the US military's new counterinsurgency manual, FM3-24. One of the pearls of that collected wisdom is the observation that successful counterinsurgency requires a force of one counterinsurgent (soldier) for every 25-50 of the civilian population. Afghanistan has a population of nearly 30,000,000. To secure that population in these highly difficult circumstances would require, by Petraeus' formula, a force of not less than 600,000 soldiers. That's what you need to win, not 60,000 here and another 40,000 there.
The insurgent/rebel's second victory in forcing the Western forces to fall back on population centers is that it negates much of the West's heavy firepower superiority. Tanks don't work well in a labyrinth of narrow city streets. You can't call down artillery barrages and air strikes on the friendly locals in downtown neighbourhoods. You're left with the very sort of battle best suited to the insurgent/rebels. It's the sort of battle that allows them to inflict the level of casualties that destroys public support at home.
I suspect that Stan McChrystal knows that he's inherited a load of stable sweepings. The Pentagon must feel that, in Afghanistan, it's been placed behind the eight ball by the neglect and hapless leadership of the Bush administration in the years immediately after the Taliban were run out, the years when Bush & Co. were distracted by Iraq. I'm guessing that the Pentagon sees this as a political betrayal and wants to stick the blame on the political classes, even if that means the successor to George w. Bush. I'd bet they're all too ready to stick Obama with this fiasco.