Who is General McChrystal’s hashish dealer? Because that stank be good.
A top U.S. military commander offered a hint of optimism on the war in Afghanistan on Thursday by declaring, in contrast to other officials, that the security situation in the Central Asian state was no longer “deteriorating” but merely “serious.”
Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s assessment, a modest upgrade to the nine-year war, runs counter to that of officials in Afghanistan and other nations who say they worry the Taliban has expanded its influence and that the situation has become explosive.
McChrystal says he agrees the Taliban has made strides in recent months and said he is “not prepared to say we’ve turned a corner.” Even so, he told reporters, the Afghan government and U.S. forces are making enough progress to leave him more optimistic about the war than he was last summer, when he declared it backsliding.
So, according to iCasualties.org, during January—which is normally at least half as deadly than the previous summer—the U.S. experienced 45 combat deaths in Afghanistan. January of 2009 saw only 25. January of 2008? 14. Similarly, General McChrystal’s senior intelligence officer, General Michael Flynn, put out just six weeks ago a powerpoint (though he hates powerpoint!) that claims the Taliban not only can “sustain itself indefinitely,” but that its “organizational capabilities and operational reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding,” and that the “strength and ability of shadow governance [is] increasing.” Similarly, year after year the ability of humanitarian groups to deliver basic aid and sustainment to the population is increasingly restricted by the fighting.
In McChrystal’s universe, this is evidence not of continued backsliding, but of mere seriousness with hopeful progress. Where is this progress happening?
General McChrystal said the highly anticipated offensive to begin soon in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province would be a significant example of the improved partnership between foreign and Afghan security forces. Helmand is a focus of insurgent activity and the narcotics trade, and is viewed as a center of gravy in the allied counterinsurgency strategy because of its fertile river valley and significant population centers.
That slapping sound you just heard was my palm impacting upon my face. Despite all the assertion to the contrary, there is no evidence to support the claim that Helmand is vital to the insurgency, or that the heroin it grows is essential to Taliban financing (seriously: argh).
Most importantly: where are all the significant population centers in Helmand? For some reason—hint hint, shining minds at CNAS—the myth persists that Helmand is somehow a major center of commerce with a high population density… when nothing is further than the truth. According to the Central Statistics Organization, in 2009 Helmand province had approximately 835,000 people. Neighboring Kandahar province, which unlike Helmand contains an actual city and actual importance to most Pashtuns, has about one million people.
Other provinces with more people, bigger, more established cities under threat, and actively deteriorating security include Kunduz (pop. approx. 900,000), Ghazni (pop. approx. 1.1 million), even Takhar (pop. approx. 860,000). And we’re not even talking about population density—Takhar, for example, is a far smaller province than Helmand, with more people, a major city almost the same size as Helmand’s capital Lashkar Gah, and a steadily deteriorating safety record in an area once considered perfectly safe and permissable.
That safe areas in the north are being thrown to the wolves while we send wave after wave after wave after wave of soldiers at a barely stalemated situation in Helmand—that we can’t even muster up a few thousand more troops to arrest the appalling deteriorating in Kandahar—is unforgivable when the commander of ISAF is running to the newspapers declaring province. There is no discernable metric out there—overall civilian casualties, Coalition casualties, security incidents, IEDs emplacements, governance intiatives—that have trended in a positive direction (the only metric I know of to be trending positively is Coalition-induced civilian casualties). And yet there General McChrystal is, talking of progress and how we’re no longer backsliding.
To conclude: why would I accuse Petraeus 2.0 of smoking the marijuana? Because it is a more comforting assumption—the man who sleeps in his office and eats one meal a day is human in some part of his life—than the more obvious one, which is that he is misleading us to continue support for a war he has lost control of. Now there could be some magical data out there that indicates we’re secretly learning from our mistakes and trying to capitalize on successes and not just mindlessly repeating the same four things over and over again… but it’s nowhere I can find it, not on the Internet. How disappointing.
Update: Michael Cohen points out that McChrystal is directly contradicting his own metrics for success. Good for him, I say.