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NYT : Stanley McChrystal’s Long War

Peter van Agtmael/Magnum, for The New York Times

PLOTTING THE COURSE General McChrystal meets with U.S. and Afghan commanders at Forward Operating Base Delhi in Helmand Province.

New York Times

(KATAKAMI / NY Times) Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal stepped off the whirring Black Hawk and headed straight into town. He had come to Garmsir, a dusty outpost along the Helmand River in southern Afghanistan, to size up the war that President Obama has asked him to save. McChrystal pulled off his flak jacket and helmet. His face, skeletal and austere, seemed a piece of the desert itself.

He was surrounded by a clutch of bodyguards, normal for a four-star general, and an array of the Marine officers charged with overseeing the town. Garmsir had been under Taliban control until May 2008, when a force of American Marines swept in and cleared it. Since then, the British, then the Americans, have been holding it and trying, ever so slowly, to build something in Garmsir — a government, an army, a police force — for the first time since the war began more than eight years ago.

The Marines around McChrystal, including the local battalion commander, Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss, looked surprised, even alarmed, when McChrystal removed his protective gear. But as the group walked the rutted streets into Garmsir’s bazaar, they began taking off their helmets, too.

“Who owns the land here?” McChrystal asked, peering up the street and into the shops. “Is it owned by the farmers or by landlords?”

It was the sort of question a sociologist, or an economist, would ask. No one offered an answer.

“If you owned 200 acres here, would you live on it, or would you live somewhere else?” McChrystal asked.

The entourage entered the bazaar. The Afghans sensed that an important American had arrived, and they began to gather in groups inside the stalls. Then the general stopped and turned.

“What do you need here?” McChrystal asked.

A translator turned the general’s words into Pashto.

“We need schools!” one Afghan called back. “Schools!”

“We’re working on that,” McChrystal said. “Those things take time.”

McChrystal walked some more, engaging another group of Afghans. He posed the same question.

“Security,” a man said. “We need security. Security first, then the other things will be possible.”

“That is what we are trying to do,” McChrystal said. “But it’s going to take time. Success takes time.”

The questions kept coming, and the answer was the same. After a couple of hours, McChrystal put on his helmet and flak jacket, boarded the Black Hawk and flew to another town.

Success takes time, but how much time does Stanley McChrystal have? The war in Afghanistan is now in its ninth year. The Taliban, measured by the number of their attacks, are stronger than at any time since the Americans toppled their government at the end of 2001. American soldiers and Marines are dying at a faster rate than ever before. Polls in the United States show that opposition to the war is growing steadily.

Worse yet, for all of America’s time in Afghanistan — for all the money and all the blood — the lack of accomplishment is manifest wherever you go. In Garmsir, there is nothing remotely resembling a modern state that could take over if America and its NATO allies left. Tour the country with a general, and you will see very quickly how vast and forbidding this country is and how paltry the effort has been.

And finally, there is the government in Kabul. President Hamid Karzai, once the darling of the West, rose to the top of nationwide elections in August on what appears to be a tide of fraud. The Americans and their NATO allies are confronting the possibility that the government they are supporting, building and defending is a rotten shell.

In his initial assessment of the country, sent to President Obama early last month, McChrystal described an Afghanistan on the brink of collapse and an America at the edge of defeat. To reverse the course of the war, McChrystal presented President Obama with what could be the most momentous foreign-policy decision of his presidency: escalate or fail. McChrystal has reportedly asked for 40,000 additional American troops — there are 65,000 already here — and an accelerated effort to train Afghan troops and police and build an Afghan state. If President Obama can’t bring himself to step up the fight, McChrystal suggested, then he might as well give up.

“Inadequate resources,” McChrystal wrote, “will likely result in failure.”

The magnitude of the choice presented by McChrystal, and now facing President Obama, is difficult to overstate. For what McChrystal is proposing is not a temporary, Iraq-style surge — a rapid influx of American troops followed by a withdrawal. McChrystal’s plan is a blueprint for an extensive American commitment to build a modern state in Afghanistan, where one has never existed, and to bring order to a place famous for the empires it has exhausted. Even under the best of circumstances, this effort would most likely last many more years, cost hundreds of billions of dollars and entail the deaths of many more American women and men.

And that’s if it succeeds.

January 14, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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