Afghan Graveyard


by Ralph Peters [author, novelist]

The conflict in Afghanistan was a special-operations war in 2001, and it’s a special-operations war in 2009. Everything in between was deadly make-believe.

The latest casualty of our incoherent effort is Gen. David McKiernan. Last Monday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates removed him from command of our Afghan operations after McKiernan objected to being sidelined.

If Congress approves, Gates will replace McKiernan with Lt. Gen. Stan McChrystal, a career-long special operator and a brilliant killer. McChrystal’s special-ops fighters, such as the Army’s Special Forces, Rangers and “black” elements, or the Navy’s SEALs, do the violent, secret work that others fear or shun. Consistently, they’ve inflicted the key enemy casualties in our now-nameless struggle with terrorists.

Gates is doing the right thing — but the human story illustrates how badly we’ve mismanaged Afghanistan.

Gen. McKiernan was and is a first-rate soldier. He argued from the beginning that we needed more troops for Iraq, then fought magnificently on the march to Baghdad. But for all his military virtues, he’s a conventional thinker who trusts the system.

Dave McKiernan didn’t fail the Army. The Army failed him. Sent to Afghanistan to herd NATO cats, he operated by the book. But the book the Army gave him was wrong.

That book — our Counterinsurgency Manual — was midwifed by Gen. David Petraeus, who did a dazzling job of turning around the mess Rumsfeld-era policies made in Iraq.

But Petraeus was nimble. When he hit the ground in Baghdad, he promptly surged beyond the prescriptions in his politically correct manual. Petraeus did what needed to be done. That included staying out of Stan McChrystal’s secret fight against al Qaeda and other bad actors in Iraq. We turned the blood tide during the hours of darkness, while journalists snored in their bunks.

Of all the factors that enabled the turnaround in Iraq, the first was the speed with which al Qaeda alienated the locals. The second was the incisive, relentless elimination of terrorists by our special-ops forces: Killing works.

But Petraeus’ deservedly lauded performance in Iraq appears to have inhibited his ability to think clearly about Afghanistan — and Pakistan. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, he’s backed the same tactic that worked in Iraq: surging troops to protect the population.

He doesn’t seem to grasp that, while al Qaeda was a foreign and ultimately unwanted presence in Iraq, the Taliban’s the home team in Afghanistan. Afghan tribesmen just don’t share our interests. And Iraq’s a state. Afghanistan’s an accident.

We’d need hundreds of thousands of troops and decades of commitment to attempt to nation-build where there’s no nation to build. Old-think counterinsurgency theory demands a lot of troops, plentiful resources — and time.

But we haven’t got the troops. Our resources are squandered. And time’s running out, with the war-virgin brats on Team Obama squealing, “Are we there yet? When are we going to get there?”

One faction in our military believes that Gates fired McKiernan because he can’t fire Petraeus — yet.

Will McChrystal, our special operator without peer, be allowed to do what’s necessary — and to jettison huggy-bear programs that sound good but don’t work? Can he focus on the destruction of our enemies? Can he throw away the book?

McChrystal’s boss, Petraeus, remains the key. If this supremely talented man can overcome his preconceptions about the fight we’re in, he and McChrystal may be the team that rescues another failing effort. But Petraeus has to think like a Pashtun tribesman, not a Princeton man.

As this column has pointed out repeatedly, Afghanistan’s worthless in and of itself. Securing hundreds of premedieval villages means local progress at the cost of strategic paralysis. To fight a mobile enemy, we need to be hypermobile. The dirt doesn’t matter.

That’s where special-ops come in. Our efforts should concentrate on supporting our black-program professionals. It’s their fight. We need fewer troops, but a clear vision and more guts.

McChrystal needs to question all the “givens.” And he needs to dismantle the NATO pleasure-palace that only impedes the war effort. Our commitment must be streamlined, not fattened and diffused. We need to focus on what must be done, casting aside what just seems nice to do.

Getting it right in Afghanistan — and across the frontier in Pakistan — means digging fewer wells and forcing our enemies to dig more graves. I’ll bet on McChrystal to get it right. If he’s allowed to.

Afghanistan’s long been called “the graveyard of empires.” Today, it’s becoming the graveyard of reputations. Worried by President Obama’s campaign promises to “fix” Afghanistan, the administration’s already looking for scapegoats as the situation worsens.

A good soldier sent on the wrong mission, Gen. McKiernan was only the first victim.


NY Post / copyright 2009 NY Post

Ralph Peters is Fox News’ strategic analyst. His latest book is “Looking For Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World.”

Peters is a retired Army officer and the author of 19 books, as well as of hundreds of essays and articles, written both under his own name and as Owen Parry. He is a frequent columnist for the New York Post and other publications.

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