Obama urged to keep McChrystal approach

Analysts say that the general's attempts to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan by bringing development is working.

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The counter-insurgency strategy now being implemented by US and Nato troops in Afghanistan has been so closely identified with Gen Stanley McChrystal that it was referred to as the "McChrystal effect". Even the tight-knit crew of believers with whom he surrounded himself was nicknamed "Team McChrystal".

But with the team dismantled and America's top general in Afghanistan fired for making impertinent and some say disloyal remarks about President Barack Obama and senior administration officials in Rolling Stone magazine, doubts have been cast upon his approach to the war. Critics of the Afghan war have cast doubt over his approach. There has been a dramatic increase of suicide bombings and assassinations in the first four months of 2010; indeed, June may be the deadliest month for Nato in the entire nine-year war with 73 soldiers dead so far. Furthermore, the much anticipated summer campaign to take Kandahar from the Taliban has been delayed until autumn.

Still, in Helmand where American and British forces launched Operation Moshtarak in February as the first major test of the general's counter-insurgency doctrine, there are early signs the strategy may be successful, said Prof Theo Farrell of the department of war studies at King's College, London. "There is no doubt the McChrystal approach is bearing fruit. It is not happening at a pace we are looking for but it takes time to achieve results. He has been trying to achieve progress on a Washington timeline and counter-insurgency just takes longer to take effect."

In Nad e Ali, the northern part of the province where the British soldiers led the February offensive insurgents have been pushed to the outskirts and the police force is improving under a new police chief. In addition, 3,000 people turned up to vote in three shura elections. The "McChrystal effect" of having a "politically led, population-centric" approach with a clear strategy is working, said Mr Farrell, author of report on the Helmand operation published yesterday by the Helmand operation at the Royal United Services Institute, a defence and security think-tank in London.

The success in Nad e Ali was partly because British and Afghan forces had been working for more than a year before the start of the offensive to bring institutions and development to Afghans in the area and to work with tribal leaders. Remarkably, the British troops took the region without civilian casualties. In contrast, in the southern Marjah area, the battle has been harder for American marines because the area was under Taliban rule for two years and before that it was controlled by drug barons. The situation was far worse than US military officials realised.

Time is an important factor in any assesssment of Gen McChrystal's performance. He was keenly aware that the clock set by Washington to begin withdrawing by July 2011 was ticking loudly and that he did not have much time to turn the Marjah mission around, he told a group of Afghan and international officials last month. "This is a bleeding ulcer right now," he said. "We don't have as many days as we'd like."

McChrystal's strategy calls for restrained use of firepower so civilians are not harmed and stricter rules of engagement against insurgents. But the Americans are finding difficult to adhere to this because the insurgents are putting up a good fight. Gen McChrystal's theory was that the Taliban's political campaign to control the south is more damaging than their military operations because insurgents promise Afghans security and good governance that has eluded them for three decades.

The Taliban's success in establishing parallel governments has put the Afghan government, which will eventually need to provide security for their people, on the backfoot. "Afghans do not want the Taliban. They are not a popular movement," he used to say. Under his direction, the strategy has shifted to emphasizing the promotion of Afghan governance. All this takes time, noted Mr Farrell. "It took the British around 18 months to stabilise Nad e Ali. Progress in Marjah ought to be measured along a similar timeline", he said.

But the Americans may not have that long. Gen David Petraeus, Gen McChrystal's mentor and America's most celebrated war leader of recent times, who is credited with bringing Iraq back from the brink of failure, has been called to stake his reputation on working a second miracle in Afghanistan. He has been put in charge of a war that he has said would be a tougher fight than what the US faced in Iraq.

Iraq is largely an urban and educated society, and the government hopes to exploit its vast oil wealth to pay for building institutions. The insurgency was also mainly in the cities, and Iraq's powerful sheikhs posed an important challenge to al Qa'eda's authority. Iraq's future may be uncertain, but Gen Petraeus wrote the counter-insurgency doctrine and orchestrated a strategy with the Iraqi leadership to bring down violence to a level that is allowing the US to exit with some dignity.

By contrast, the Afghan war is in the rural heartlands, and the educated classes required to rebuild the country have fled. Those who remain are targets of an assassination campaign that appears geared at ensuring Afghanistan remains ungovernable. The country's economic potential is in its mineral and metal wealth, but it is many years away from extracting enough to make a difference. Gen. McChrystal built good relationships with senior Afghan officials, including the president, Hamid Karzai, and the defence minister, Rahim Wardak, who are sorry to see him go.

One of the chief complaints of the Afghans is that American generals and commanders have short tours. Any experience and lessons of the counry leaves with them, as a new team arrives to replace them and start all over again. With Gen Petraeus in place, they will get someone who is the godfather of the counter-insurgency doctrine that Gen McChrystal put in place. It is doubtful there will be a radical change in approach.