McChrystal: More Forces or 'Mission Failure'
The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan warns in an urgent, confidential assessment of the war that he needs more forces within the next year and bluntly states that without them, the eight-year conflict "will likely result in failure," according to a copy of the 66-page document obtained by The Washington Post.
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal says emphatically: "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."
His assessment was sent to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Aug. 30 and is now being reviewed by President Obama and his national security team.
McChrystal concludes the document's five-page Commander's Summary on a note of muted optimism: "While the situation is serious, success is still achievable."
But he repeatedly warns that without more forces and the rapid implementation of a genuine counterinsurgency strategy, defeat is likely. McChrystal describes an Afghan government riddled with corruption and an international force undermined by tactics that alienate civilians.
He provides extensive new details about the Taliban insurgency, which he calls a muscular and sophisticated enemy that uses modern propaganda and systematically reaches into Afghanistan's prisons to recruit members and even plan operations.
McChrystal's assessment is one of several options the White House is considering. His plan could intensify a national debate in which leading Democratic lawmakers have expressed reluctance about committing more troops to an increasingly unpopular war. Obama said last week that he will not decide whether to send more troops until he has "absolute clarity about what the strategy is going to be."
The commander has prepared a separate detailed request for additional troops and other resources, but defense officials have said he is awaiting instructions before sending it to the Pentagon.
Senior administration officials asked The Post over the weekend to withhold brief portions of the assessment that they said could compromise future operations. A declassified version of the document, with some deletions made at the government's request, appears at washingtonpost.com.
McChrystal makes clear that his call for more forces is predicated on the adoption of a strategy in which troops emphasize protecting Afghans rather than killing insurgents or controlling territory. Most starkly, he says: "[I]nadequate resources will likely result in failure. However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced."
The assessment offers an unsparing critique of the failings of the Afghan government, contending that official corruption is as much of a threat as the insurgency to the mission of the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, as the U.S.-led NATO coalition is widely known.
"The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF's own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government," McChrystal says.
The result has been a "crisis of confidence among Afghans," he writes. "Further, a perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents."
McChrystal is equally critical of the command he has led since June 15. The key weakness of ISAF, he says, is that it is not aggressively defending the Afghan population. "Pre-occupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us -- physically and psychologically -- from the people we seek to protect. . . . The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves."
McChrystal continues: "Afghan social, political, economic, and cultural affairs are complex and poorly understood. ISAF does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population."
Coalition intelligence-gathering has focused on how to attack insurgents, hindering "ISAF's comprehension of the critical aspects of Afghan society."
In a four-page annex on detainee operations, McChrystal warns that the Afghan prison system has become "a sanctuary and base to conduct lethal operations" against the government and coalition forces. He cites as examples an apparent prison connection to the 2008 bombing of the Serena Hotel in Kabul and other attacks. "Unchecked, Taliban/Al Qaeda leaders patiently coordinate and plan, unconcerned with interference from prison personnel or the military."
The assessment says that Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents "represent more than 2,500 of the 14,500 inmates in the increasingly overcrowded Afghan Corrections System," in which "[h]ardened, committed Islamists are indiscriminately mixed with petty criminals and sex offenders, and they are using the opportunity to radicalize and indoctrinate them."
Noting that the United States "came to Afghanistan vowing to deny these same enemies safe haven in 2001," he says they now operate with relative impunity in the prisons. "There are more insurgents per square foot in corrections facilities than anywhere else in Afghanistan," his assessment says.
McChrystal outlines a plan to build up the Afghan government's ability to manage its detention facilities and eventually put all such operations under Afghan control, including the Bagram Theater Internment Facility, which the United States runs.
For now, because of a lack of capacity, "productive interrogations and detainee intelligence collection have been reduced" at Bagram. "As a result, hundreds are held without charge or without a defined way-ahead. This allows the enemy to radicalize them far beyond their pre-capture orientation. The problem can no longer be ignored."
The general says his command is "not adequately executing the basics" of counterinsurgency by putting the Afghan people first. "ISAF personnel must be seen as guests of the Afghan people and their government, not an occupying army," he writes. "Key personnel in ISAF must receive training in local languages."
He also says that coalition forces will change their operational culture, in part by spending "as little time as possible in armored vehicles or behind the walls of forward operating bases." Strengthening Afghans' sense of security will require troops to take greater risks, but the coalition "cannot succeed if it is unwilling to share risk, at least equally, with the people."
McChrystal warns that in the short run, it "is realistic to expect that Afghan and coalition casualties will increase."
He proposes speeding the growth of Afghan security forces. The existing goal is to expand the army from 92,000 to 134,000 by December 2011. McChrystal seeks to move that deadline to October 2010.
Overall, McChrystal wants the Afghan army to grow to 240,000 and the police to 160,000 for a total security force of 400,000, but he does not specify when those numbers could be reached.
He also calls for "radically more integrated and partnered" work with Afghan units.
McChrystal says the military must play an active role in reconciliation, winning over less committed insurgent fighters. The coalition "requires a credible program to offer eligible insurgents reasonable incentives to stop fighting and return to normalcy, possibly including the provision of employment and protection," he writes.
Coalition forces will have to learn that "there are now three outcomes instead of two" for enemy fighters: not only capture or death, but also "reintegration."
Again and again, McChrystal makes the case that his command must be bolstered if failure is to be averted. "ISAF requires more forces," he states, citing "previously validated, yet un-sourced, requirements" -- an apparent reference to a request for 10,000 more troops originally made by McChrystal's predecessor, Gen. David D. McKiernan.
A Three-Headed Insurgency
McChrystal identifies three main insurgent groups "in order of their threat to the mission" and provides significant details about their command structures and objectives.
The first is the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST) headed by Mullah Omar, who fled Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and operates from the Pakistani city of Quetta.
"At the operational level, the Quetta Shura conducts a formal campaign review each winter, after which Mullah Omar announces his guidance and intent for the coming year," according to the assessment.
Mullah Omar's insurgency has established an elaborate alternative government known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, McChrystal writes, which is capitalizing on the Afghan government's weaknesses. "They appoint shadow governors for most provinces, review their performance, and replace them periodically. They established a body to receive complaints against their own 'officials' and to act on them. They install 'shari'a' [Islamic law] courts to deliver swift and enforced justice in contested and controlled areas. They levy taxes and conscript fighters and laborers. They claim to provide security against a corrupt government, ISAF forces, criminality, and local power brokers. They also claim to protect Afghan and Muslim identity against foreign encroachment."
"The QST has been working to control Kandahar and its approaches for several years and there are indications that their influence over the city and neighboring districts is significant and growing," McChrystal writes.
The second main insurgency group is the Haqqani network (HQN), which is active in southeastern Afghanistan and draws money and manpower "principally from Pakistan, Gulf Arab networks, and from its close association with al Qaeda and other Pakistan-based insurgent groups." At another point in the assessment, McChrystal says, "Al Qaeda's links with HQN have grown, suggesting that expanded HQN control could create a favorable environment" for associated extremist movements "to re-establish safe-havens in Afghanistan."
The third is the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin insurgency, which maintains bases in three Afghan provinces "as well as Pakistan," the assessment says. This network, led by the former mujaheddin commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, "aims to negotiate a major role in a future Taliban government. He does not currently have geographical objectives as is the case with the other groups," though he "seeks control of mineral wealth and smuggling routes in the east."
Overall, McChrystal provides this conclusion about the enemy: "The insurgents control or contest a significant portion of the country, although it is difficult to assess precisely how much due to a lack of ISAF presence. . . . "
The insurgents make money from the production and sale of opium and other narcotics, but the assessment says that "eliminating insurgent access to narco-profits -- even if possible, and while disruptive -- would not destroy their ability to operate so long as other funding sources remained intact."
While the insurgency is predominantly Afghan, McChrystal writes that it "is clearly supported from Pakistan. Senior leaders of the major Afghan insurgent groups are based in Pakistan, are linked with al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups, and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan's ISI," which is its intelligence service. Al-Qaeda and other extremist movements "based in Pakistan channel foreign fighters, suicide bombers, and technical assistance into Afghanistan, and offer ideological motivation, training, and financial support."
Toward the end of his report, McChrystal revisits his central theme: "Failure to provide adequate resources also risks a longer conflict, greater casualties, higher overall costs, and ultimately, a critical loss of political support. Any of these risks, in turn, are likely to result in mission failure."
Josh Boak and Evelyn Duffy contributed to this report.