Just suppose President Obama hadn’t fired General Stanley McChrystal this week as his top commander in Afghanistan. What would have been the headlines from the warzone?
Perhaps that this month has seen the highest number of fatalities among foreign troops in Afghanistan since the invasion in 2001?
Or that a report from the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said that nine years on, “the overall security situation has not improved”?
(Just one line from the report: “The rise in incidents involving improvised explosive devices constitutes an alarming trend, with the first four months of 2010 recording a 94 per cent increase compared to the same period in 2009.”)
Or, as the New York Times reported, that criticism of the Afghanistan strategy is mounting on Capitol Hill, even among President Obama’s allies, and that public support for the war is crumbling?
The respected military analyst Anthony Cordesman wrote in a sobering critique this week: “Two critical questions dominate any realistic discussion of the conflict. The first is whether the war is worth fighting. The second is whether it can be won. The answers to both questions are uncertain.”
How many times have we been told that the key to success in Afghanistan is not military but political? Over and over again, we’ve read that bolstering the authority of the Afghan government is every bit as important as defeating the Taliban militarily.
As Fred Kaplan wrote on Slate.com: “Counter-insurgency wars, as has been said countless times, are fought by, with, through, and on behalf of the host country's national government. The idea is to provide security, so the government can bring its people basic services. If the government is incompetent, corrupt, or widely viewed by the people as illegitimate, then a counterinsurgency campaign — no matter how brilliantly planned or valiantly fought — is futile.”
Which means, I assume, that President Hamid Karzai holds the key. And who was the one senior US official who seemed to be able to get on with Mr Karzai? None other than the now departed General McChrystal.
So here’s where we are. General McChrystal has been fired, despite President Karzai’s public entreaties that he should be allowed to stay on. The US special envoy Richard Holbrooke stays on, despite President Karzai’s refusal to have any more dealings with him.
And President Karzai stays on too, despite the widespread belief that he rigged his election victory last year, and despite Washington’s impatience with his apparent inability to get a grip.
What’s more, the clock is ticking. In December, President Obama will be given a “strategic review” assessment of where things stand in Afghanistan. And, according to the current plan, in exactly 12 months from now, US troops will begin to withdraw.
The Canadians and the Dutch have already announced that their troops will be going home next year. The British prime minister David Cameron and his defence secretary Liam Fox have both been sounding less than convinced recently that Britain’s military contribution should continue for much longer.
After the death of the 300th British serviceman in Afghanistan earlier this week, Mr Cameron said: “We are paying a high price for keeping our country safe, for making our world a safer place, and we should keep asking why we are there and how long we must be there.”
That doesn’t mean that British troops are about to pull out. But it may be relevant that the new coalition UK government seems to feel much less of a need to cosy up to Washington than did its Labour predecessors (and, to be fair, I think the same could be said in the opposite direction of President Obama when compared to President Bush).
It may also be relevant that Pakistan is reported to view the enforced departure of General McChrystal as an opportunity to step into the gap he leaves behind. One report suggests that Islamabad is now presenting itself as a new “viable partner” for President Karzai, with its army chief General Kayani “personally offering to broker a deal with the Taliban leadership.”
The new US commander in Afghanistan is General David Petraeus, a man much admired for his perceived achievements in Iraq, and who virtually single-handed wrote the US military manual on how to conduct counter-insurgency operations.
So if anyone can win the war, it’s probably General Petraeus. Except, of course, that as his own doctrine acknowledges, counter-insurgency operations can’t be won militarily.
And that, I’m afraid, is where we came in.