No Comment — April 26, 2010, 10:18 am

New Afghan Strategies Put to the Test

General Stanley McChrystal is putting his mark on the American and NATO effort in Afghanistan. His major new strategic effort includes a focal attempt to “roll up” the Taliban leadership in the nation’s south, especially in the area around Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city. But how is this effort going? Time’s clear-eyed Joe Klein reports:

In a recent survey of Kandahar residents, taken by the U.S. Army, a majority said they trusted the Taliban to be more honest and provide better governance than President Hamid Karzai’s regime. (Karzai’s half brother Ahmed Wali remains a controversial and corrupt local strongman.) And yet, the level of optimism emanating from General Stanley McChrystal’s headquarters in Kabul stands in near delusional contrast to the situation in Kandahar as it is being experienced by troops and civilian workers on the ground.

Klein’s detailed reporting backs this up. He couldn’t be more generous or positive in his portrait of U.S. efforts and the vision behind the redesign of the tactical effort. But he carefully documents the jarring disconnect with the reality on the ground.

Alissa Rubin, in a New York Times report on a public attack on U.S. forces, offers an account through the eyes of the locals:

Twelve trucks, most of them carrying fuel to a NATO base in eastern Afghanistan, were burned by an angry crowd early Sunday less than 30 miles from Kabul, according to local officials and NATO reports. The attack was thought to be in retribution for two raids by a joint Afghan-American force over the weekend, Afghan officials said. It was the first significant attack on a convoy in Logar Province, south of Kabul, in the past 18 months, said the provincial governor’s spokesman, Din Mohammed Darwish. The attack and a similar one on Saturday on a single truck were notable because Logar is the southern gateway to Kabul, the Afghan capital, and has been used by the Taliban to get arms, fighters and support into the capital.

What has the people riled up? It seems to be General McChrystal’s operation targeting Taliban leaders, Rubin reports:

“People are fed up with these night raids and willful operations,” said Mohammed Sharif, a teacher in Pul-i-Alam, the provincial capital, which is near the villages raided by the joint forces. “They are raiding houses during the night, killing innocent people,” he said. “Sometimes they kill opposition people as well, but usually they are harming ordinary and innocent people.” Five Afghan insurgents, as well as two American soldiers, were killed Friday night in the first raid of the weekend, according to a NATO report. The second raid, on Saturday night, killed three people, including one who might have been a civilian, according to the provincial police chief, Gen. Mustafa Mohseini. One of those killed was the headmaster of the high school at Poorak, a neighboring village; he was also a cleric.

The people seem prepared to accept that Taliban leaders are a legitimate target for the NATO forces. But they seem convinced that, as so often in the past, many of the blows are misdirected. Is that because of bad intelligence? Or have the Taliban leaders burrowed in so deep and so effectively that their neighbors really have no idea who they are? It’s almost certainly a mixture of these things, but bad intelligence has been a plague of U.S. operations from the beginning, as military intelligence officers are spun wildly by tribal leaders out to eliminate their adversaries—and not necessarily the Taliban.

The new tactics aren’t very popular with U.S. troops either, and that’s another aspect of the problem. Klein’s earlier report contained this passage:

General McChrystal has issued a series of tactical directives and rules of engagement banning most forms of air support. There are also new rules governing when and how troops on the ground can use their weapons. “Look at these,” Ellis told me, tossing a fat sheaf of directives onto his desk. “Some of these are written by freaking lawyers, and I’m supposed to read them aloud to my troops. It’s laughable. We can’t fire warning shots. We can’t even fire pen flares to stop an oncoming vehicle. If a guy shoots at you, then puts down his weapon and runs away, you can’t fire back at him because you might harm a civilian.” The troops hate the new rules. Indeed, a soldier from another of the 1/12’s companies sent an angry e-mail to McChrystal, saying the new rules were endangering the troops. The General immediately flew down to Zhari and walked a patrol with that soldier’s platoon. “It was a good experience,” McChrystal told me later. “I explained to them why we needed the rules. And I’ve been making it my practice to go out on patrol with other units ever since.”

In a memo late last year summarizing his tactical thinking, McChrystal argued that NATO forces on the ground needed to “accept the same level of risk as Afghan civilians.” The passage mystified many of his officers. But what it meant concretely was reflected in the new rules of engagement. An Afghan civilian ventures out into the streets of a city or into a rural area without using weapons against every perceived threat. But years of free-fire rules for U.S. forces in Afghanistan have led to a large number of assaults on innocent gatherings. “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat,” General McChrystal said, for instance, referring to shootings at checkpoints. On April 12, a speeding bus that drew too close to a NATO convoy was strafed, with four passengers killed. NATO subsequently admitted the incident was an error in judgment and that those killed were innocent civilians. But these incidents reflect that McChrystal’s new rules, which greatly restrict the use of lethal force against civilians, are having a hard time gaining acceptance.

These reports point to what I suspect will be the decisive factors for the current U.S. operation in Afghanistan. First, is the effort to seize key Taliban leaders directed by solid intelligence, or is it another misfire that disproportionately strikes innocent civilians? Second, will McChrystal’s new rules of engagement be accepted by soldiers in the field? It’s still far too early to view the effort as a failure, but this surely isn’t what a success looks like.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2018

Within Reach

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bodies in The Forest

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Minds of Others

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Modern Despots

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before the Deluge

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Notes to Self

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Minds of Others·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the partisan divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans often fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting worldviews. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs — and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.

Yet we know that people do change their minds. We are constantly molded by our environment and our culture, by the events of the world, by the gossip we hear and the books we read. In the essays that follow, seven writers explore the ways that persuasion operates in our lives, from the intimate to the far-reaching. Some consider the ethics and mechanics of persuasion itself — in religion, politics, and foreign policy — and others turn their attention to the channels through which it acts, such as music, protest, and technology. How, they ask, can we persuade others to join our cause or see things the way we do? And when it comes to our own openness to change, how do we decide when to compromise and when to resist?

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Within Reach·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a balmy day last spring, Connor Chase sat on a red couch in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Columbus, Ohio, and watched the traffic on the street. His bleached-blond hair fell into his eyes as he scrolled through his phone to distract himself. Waiting to see Mimi Rivard, a nurse practitioner, was making Chase nervous: it would be the first time he would tell a medical professional that he was transgender.

By the time he arrived at the Equitas Health clinic, Chase was eighteen, and had long since come to dread doctors and hospitals. As a child, he’d had asthma, migraines, two surgeries for a tumor that had caused deafness in one ear, and gangrene from an infected bug bite. Doctors had always assumed he was a girl. After puberty, Chase said, he avoided looking in the mirror because his chest and hips “didn’t feel like my body.” He liked it when strangers saw him as male, but his voice was high-pitched, so he rarely spoke in public. Then, when Chase was fourteen, he watched a video on YouTube in which a twentysomething trans man described taking testosterone to lower his voice and appear more masculine. Suddenly, Chase had an explanation for how he felt — and what he wanted.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Before the Deluge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the summer of 2016, when Congress installed a financial control board to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, I traveled to San Juan, the capital. The island owed some $120 billion, and Wall Street was demanding action. On the news, President Obama announced his appointments to the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera. “The task ahead for Puerto Rico is not an easy one,” he said. “But I am confident Puerto Rico is up to the challenge of stabilizing the fiscal situation, restoring growth, and building a better future for all Puerto Ricans.” Among locals, however, the control board was widely viewed as a transparent effort to satisfy mainland creditors — just the latest tool of colonialist plundering that went back generations.

Photograph from Puerto Rico by Christopher Gregory
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner

Amount American Airlines saved in 1987 by eliminating one olive from each salad served in first class:

$40,000

A daddy longlegs preserved in amber 99 million years ago was found to have an erection.

Trump tweeted that he had created “jobs, jobs, jobs” since becoming president, and it was reported that Trump plans to bolster job creation by loosening regulations on the global sale of US-made artillery, warships, fighter jets, and drones.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today