Becoming the Enemy? Reflections on McChrystal and Afghanistan.

The March/April 2011 edition of Foreign Policy magazine has an article by General Stanley McChrystal (ret.), the former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2009 – 2010. In the print edition his article is titled, “Becoming the Enemy: To win in Afghanistan, we need to fight more like the Taliban.” (Oddly, the online version has a different title, “It Takes a Network: The new front line of modern warfare” – One wonders if the print title was considered too controversial.) In it, McChrystal argues that for the United States to win the Afghan war, our top-down military command structure needs to shift to a more networked organizational structure similar to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan or Al Qaeda in Iraq.

McChrystal describes the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Iraq structure very clearly, explaining how Taliban leaders travel the countryside talking to their shadow governors, motivating their troops, distributing money, and assessing tactics and strategies with local leaders. He explains, too, how leaders use cell phones and the Internet to communicate locally, nationally, and worldwide. Money and information, he says, “flowed at alarming rates, allowing for powerful, nimble coordination. We would watch their tactics change (from rocket attacks to suicide bombings, for example) nearly simultaneously in disparate cities.” Local leaders and units act on their own, without the need for orders from above, but consistent with the general themes, strategies, and tactics of their organizations and connections. New leaders can pop-up anywhere; a young fighter might decide to organize something and simply do it. If he is successful a new insurgent cell might be born and its reputation and power within the organization can grow according to its demonstrated ability and relationships with others. Ideas and information flow easily and almost instantly from top to bottom, bottom to top, and laterally, across networks and distances.


Retired General Stanley McChrystal

General McChrystal goes on to describe his efforts to study and copy the Taliban / Al Qaeda networking model in the U.S. and NATO forces. He increased electronic communications and use of intelligence analysts across the military spectrum, from small combat teams in action to headquarters, intelligence analysts, to even other combat teams hundreds of miles apart. Intelligence gained in one operation could instantly be used in another, or even to initiate another action elsewhere. McChrystal states, “Decisions were decentralized and cut laterally across the organization.” He concludes that this continues to be a work in progress and there is much more to be done.

Yet despite General McChrystal’s extensive experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, he exhibits a form of tunnel vision. A master of trees, McChrystal seems unable to see the forest within which his military skill is applied. He never asks the larger questions about the war that he is still doggedly trying to help his country win, and whether “winning” is either possible or desirable, regardless of organizational structure.

To begin with, McChrystal expertly analyzes the military command structure (or lack of structure) of the insurgents. But he never asks why the “insurgents” are supported by the local population, or why American forces are not. The Taliban “insurgents” are native peoples of the area, who speak, dress, act, think, and are members of local tribes, or leaders who have the ability to flow and blend with the local people. They are organic to their regions, and their organizations are likewise organic. This is part of why they have the type of organizational networks that they do; these are natural and organic to the local people, with updating for current conditions and technology. Al Qaeda operatives may not be native to Afghanistan, but they share many religious and cultural bonds, have long standing working relationships in the areas where they work, and operate within those relationships.

The U.S. military might be able to copy some aspects of the Taliban command structure. But American soldiers mostly do not speak the native languages and do not dress, act, or think like the local people, nor do they share religious and cultural beliefs with the local people. They cannot blend. American soldiers and the native people are aliens to each other, neither one really understanding the other and each viewing the other with mistrust and suspicion. This is the fundamental advantage that the “insurgents” have that we can never have, regardless of our command structure. Recall that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army had conventional military command structures, yet they won all the same. They, too, were native to their country.

And why is this? It is because we are outside invaders who are occupying a foreign country, and we do not belong there. This is true in Afghanistan just as it was true in Viet Nam. The local people in Afghanistan know this, and a majority of our own population at home know this, as revealed consistently in polls. Majorities in both Afghanistan and in America oppose our war there. It is why so many Afghans resist us or do not oppose the Taliban. Thus, the moral dimensions of the war has a key impact on both the battlefield in Afghanistan and the political field in America.

This is not about military skill or strategy, and it really is not about General McChrystal personally. McChrystal naturally wants to win the war he was sent to fight. But no amount of skill, courage, or sacrifice on his or even the entire military’s part can compensate for the fact that the war is fundamentally wrong and our country should not be there.  He cannot change the fact that people everywhere – most especially Afghans – will fight to defend their country from foreign invaders, and will not quit until the invaders have left.  No military strategy can change that central truth.

It is notable that in the print edition of Foreign Policy, the article that immediately follows McChrystal’s is “How Obama Lost Karzai,” by Ahmed Rashid (Online: In his article, Rashid states that in 2009 – 2010 – when McChrystal was in command – security in Afghanistan reached its lowest point since the Taliban government was overthrown, insurgent attacks increased 66%, Taliban shadow governors operated in 33 of 34 provinces, civilian casualties increased 20%, and coalition troops had the highest death toll in nine years of war. The harder we fight, the harder the Afghans resist.

Ahmed Rashid notes Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s attempts to negotiate with the Taliban, and concludes, “talking to the Taliban…is the only road that leads out of this conflict.”

Peace, it seems, is the only solution to war.

About Michael Wong

Michael Wong refused U.S. Army orders and deserted to Canada during the Viet Nam war. He currently is a member of Veterans for Peace and the Veterans Writers Group led by Maxine Hong Kingston. He is featured in the movie “Sir! No Sir!” about GI resistance to the Viet Nam war, and in the anthology, “Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace,” edited by Maxine Hong Kingston. He is a social worker with a Master of Social Work degree.


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