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The Return of ‘The Runaway General’

Life and Fate

by Vasily Grossman
New York Review Books, 905 pp., $24.95 (paper)
Pete Souza/White House
President Barack Obama and General Stanley McChrystal at the White House, May 2009

When Soviet forces began to pull out of Afghanistan in 1988 they were leaving behind a mixed group of Afghan forces, much as the Americans will be leaving behind a mixed group when they complete their pullout in 2014.

First, there was the president of the pro-Soviet Republic of Afghanistan, a Communist-turned-Afghan-nationalist strongman named Mohammad Najibullah, whom the CIA thought could survive only a few weeks once the Soviets left. In fact, his regime would last until 1992, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the money and supplies it had been providing the Afghan government stopped. There were also many local militias led by warlords created by Soviet Special Forces and the KGB, as well as rival ethnic groups, drug lords, and a Pakistan-based opposition collectively called the Mujahideen. This group, which hoped to topple the Communist regime, was riven by deep factionalism and overt interference by the CIA and Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI), which the Communist government in Kabul used to its advantage by playing divide and rule among the Mujahideen’s various components. There were also large numbers of urban Afghans who supported Najibullah and who had benefited from Soviet rule.

The Afghan government had little control of the countryside outside the major cities. Afghanistan had been left in a state of near chaos by the widespread corruption in the country fueled by drug trafficking, an army and economy totally dependent on Soviet aid, and advisers facing increasing interference by Afghanistan’s neighbors—such as Iran and Pakistan—and by the Mujahideen in safe havens in Pakistan.

This may sound all too familiar. Still, there is an important difference between Afghanistan in 1992 and Afghanistan today. Unlike the Americans, before they left the Soviets (and their protégé Najibullah) had tried hard to carry out a political reconciliation process not only with the Mujahideen leaders and field commanders but also with their backers, the United States and Pakistan. Though their attempts at political reconciliation did not succeed, the Soviets’ contact with Afghan commanders allowed the Red Army to withdraw with few casualties in just nine months because Afghan commanders had agreed not to fire on departing Soviet soldiers. The US withdrawal will in comparison be carried out in stages and ultimately take two years and be very bloody.

Najibullah’s political strategy was based on Afghan nationalism. It included introducing a new constitution, a multiparty system, and an Islamic legal system. His army held on for three years defending all the major cities against the Mujahideen until the collapse of the Soviet Union stopped aid and money supplies. Meanwhile, the United Nations, having organized the five-year-long negotiations that led to the Soviet withdrawal, did not give up. The UN envoys Diego Cordovez and later Benon Sevan continued actively to try to lay the groundwork for an inclusive power-sharing agreement between Najibullah’s government and the Mujahideen. In Afghanistan today, US talks with the Taliban have stalled while the US has refused to adopt a neutral international partner as mediator.

At least 13,833 Soviet soldiers were killed in the decade-long occupation, more than double the roughly 6,000 US and NATO troops killed over the past ten years (although Gregory Feifer in his masterly reconstruction of the Soviet occupation says many Russian soldiers still believe that up to 75,000 of their number were killed). The key difference between then and now is that the Soviets left behind a system, a nation-building effort that for many Afghans was worth defending, not to speak of their fear of the Mujahideen. They also left Najibullah, who was able to rally many people, and a core group of die-hard Afghan Communist officers who led the army—even though all that remained needed propping up with huge amounts of Soviet aid. But the alternative was even worse. When the Mujahideen occupied Kabul, civil war broke out between competing factions.

Will this, too, sound familiar before very long? Many journalists and commentators have predicted that war will break out once the Americans leave. The simple but startling outcome of the NATO summit in Chicago in May was that there is apparently no “Plan B.” Every source I have consulted has made it clear that there are no contingency plans if the promised withdrawal of Western forces by 2014 becomes very difficult to carry out; if US and NATO efforts to stabilize and strengthen the Afghan regime fail; if efforts to reduce rising ethnic tensions between the Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns are unsuccessful; if the 350,000-strong Afghan army and police do not hold together; if neighboring states like Pakistan and Iran step up their battle for influence; and if Pakistan does not stop giving sanctuary to the Taliban. A lot of things have to go right before the withdrawal can be seen as successful. On the other hand, only a few things have to go wrong to turn it into a debacle.

There was wishful thinking at Chicago that the insurgency will automatically subside simply because the Americans are leaving, or that somehow the lack of good governance and of economic reforms, as well as other problems, will suddenly be remedied. There is a blithe new NATO phrase—“Afghanistan good enough”—implying that expectations for leaving behind a more stable and secure Afghan government should be downgraded. The US and NATO have made a commitment to continue funding the Afghan army for five years, providing $4.1 billion a year, while the international community at the recent Tokyo conference committed some $16 billion for budgetary support for the government and economic development. But the global economic crisis may make it impossible for Europe especially to fulfill such commitments. Spain and Italy have already announced that because of the economic crisis they have slashed their budget commitments to Afghanistan. Doubtless more will follow that example. On July 7, the US declared Afghanistan a “major non-NATO ally,” but it is unclear how much of a commitment this entails, and in any case it is clear that without US and NATO money, Afghanistan’s army would dissolve and be divided up among warlords—precisely what happened to post-Soviet Afghanistan.

This is a long way away from the support the Afghan people gave the Americans in 2001, when they welcomed them for ousting the Taliban regime. Hopes then were that the Americans would rebuild Afghanistan. As Lucy Morgan Edwards reveals in her book The Afghan Solution, there was even an alternative—presented by some anti-Taliban political figures and commanders—to the outright invasion of Afghanistan by US forces. Prominent figures like the former anti-Soviet field commander Abdul Haq, whose wife and child were murdered by the Taliban, tried to persuade some moderate Taliban commanders to break with al-Qaeda before the US invasion started. Such military leaders who advocate reconciliation with the Taliban to bring the war to an end are needed today, but are nowhere to be found in the Afghan landscape, partly because the US has declined to support such compromisers.

Today the reality is that the insurgency is likely to get worse rather than better, unless there is a peace deal with the Taliban. In a revealing statement, General John Allen, the head of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, admitted to Michael Hirsh of The Atlantic in May that the insurgents still number between 30,000 and 35,000. “Nobody knows for sure,” he added.* In 2006, when the Taliban launched a major attack to try to capture Kandahar, US officials estimated their total numbers at 25,000. So there are more Taliban now than before and after ten years of war. Nobody, not even the US, knows their true number. It is a strange kind of success when US intelligence has no idea how many enemies there are.

The reality is that there is no clear US political strategy to deal with the aftermath of its withdrawal in 2014. The most important components are the need for dramatic progress in US talks with the Taliban, a strategy to stabilize the Afghan government, which faces presidential elections in 2014, and to resolve the US conflict with Pakistan over Taliban safe havens. Talks with the Taliban—which started at their insistence last year—have been suspended since January because of the US military’s refusal to accept the first confidence-building measures that were agreed on between the two sides: the freeing of five senior Taliban figures from Guantánamo and allowing the Taliban to open a political office in Qatar. In return, the Taliban would free Bowe Bergdahl—a twenty-six-year-old US army sergeant taken prisoner in Afghanistan in June 2009. Internal disputes between the Pentagon and the State Department over the freeing of Taliban commanders and the military’s general reluctance to negotiate anything with the Taliban have slowed down the prospects of dialogue, while President Obama seems absent from the debate. The US military’s hubris about Afghanistan is dangerous and it is almost certain to run up against the realities of Afghanistan’s resistance to outsiders. This hubris is what Michael Hastings’s book, The Operators, is all about.

Hastings is the Rolling Stone reporter who single-handedly caused the downfall of General Stanley McChrystal, the commanding officer of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, in 2010. The Operators is based on Hastings’s now infamous profile of McChrystal, “The Runaway General,” which was published in the July 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. When first assigned the article, Hastings was meant to have access to McChrystal and his staff for only two days in Paris, but when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted, Hastings’s flight home was canceled, and he accepted an invitation from McChrystal’s press officer to accompany them to Berlin. Hastings then spent over two months with McChrystal and his team, following them, as Hastings himself has said, “from Paris to Berlin to Kabul to Kandahar and then back to Washington, D.C.”

Hastings came to know McChrystal’s team of advisers—among whom, he noted, were “a former head of British Special Forces, two Navy Seals, an Afghan Special Forces commando, a lawyer, two fighter pilots and at least two dozen combat veterans and counterinsurgency experts.” He heard them and McChrystal himself make disparaging remarks about the president and his senior staff. One aide, for instance, referred to Joe Biden as “bite me.” Another aide told Hastings that McChrystal thought Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s personally appointed special representative to Aghanistan and Pakistan, was a “wounded animal.”

Perhaps most damaging were McChrystal’s reported comments about Obama himself. Hastings wrote that one of McChrystal’s aides had told him that the general, on first meeting Obama, thought the president looked “intimidated and uncomfortable” around senior military officials. McChrystal later had a one-on-one meeting with Obama in the Oval Office, which, the aide reported,

was a ten-minute photo op [that indicated that] Obama clearly didn’t know anything about [McChrystal], who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his fucking war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.
  1. *

    Michael Hirsh, “American Ally, American Adversary: Our Worsening Pakistan Problem,” The Atlantic, May 30, 2012. 

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