The bankruptcy of counterinsurgency: Stanley McChrystal on Afghanistan

posted 16 May 2010 with minor revisions 24 May

I can’t get General McChrystal’s recent appearance on the the PBS NewsHour out of my head. What the U.S. commander in Afghanistan had to say on the application of the currently fashionable doctrine of counter-insurgency (or COIN) was unnerving. Its platitudes and vacuity revealed more forcefully than anything I have seen to date the conceptual bankruptcy of the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan.

To judge from McChrystal’s remarks, the Afghan landscape he aims to reshape is flat and featureless. The “insurgents” (left strikingly vague) are coercive, numerous, and wide ranging. The “people” (another abstraction) are traumatized by war, don’t like the insurgents, and long for a better future (though exactly what is also unclear). His job is to somehow neutralize the bad “insurgents,” make it possible for the good “people” to believe in the future and to invest in it as one would in a stock market (an odd metaphor given Wall Street’s recent behavior).

While McChrystal emphatically rejects the notion that his COIN operations carry any taint of empire, his recital of objectives conjures up the image of an Afghanistan remade on something like a U.S. template. His Afghanistan will develop constitutional politics, an army and police force trained up by U.S. forces, and a society defined by a commitment to “progress” rather than religious faith, ethnic solidarity, or social justice. It won’t do drugs, It will have clean government. And it will deal sternly with enemies of its U.S. patron. In realizing these goals, he has the indispensable collaborator in the person of President Hamid Karzai whom McChrystal indulgently describes as his “boss” and “good partner.” But the relationship in fact would seem closer to student-teacher in a class on how (as McChrystal puts it) government can “be matured.” During the period of tutelage, the United States will be “helping to guarantee Afghanistan’s sovereignty.” Sounds to me like an imperial exercise in creating a protectorate resting on a viable client regime. Not at all what the Soviets and other intruders had in mind!

Finally, McChrystal is alarmingly unclear about how the strategy of bringing hope will play out and about how to measure success. The U.S. project, he keeps telling us, is all about “process.” Whatever is involved will take many months, perhaps years and will end in some kind of political settlement “that Afghans feel comfortable about.” That clarifies matters!

This interview offers dismaying confirmation of what COIN critics, both in the military and out, have already said: This supposedly innovative approach to military operations is founded on an abstract vision of peoples without culture, lands without history, and a United States guided by only the most benevolent and high minded of intentions. McChrystal has served up a stunningly old hat U.S. world view, distinctly imperial in its claims and depressingly ethnocentric in its deficiencies. That he has done so without the least sign of self consciousness or doubt makes his pronouncement all the more revealing and depressing.

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