In his interview with “60 Minutes” last night, Gen. Stanley McChrystal laid out a change of strategy in Afghanistan that at first sounds counter-intuitive. Use less firepower against the enemy, even when that decision increases the danger to American troops. In his mind and that of Gen. David Petraeus, protecting the Afghan people from danger — whether that danger comes from the Taliban or ourselves — is more important than killing Taliban:
“This is something that takes a tremendous amount of understanding. What I’m really telling people is the greatest risk we can accept is to lose the support of the people here,” McChrystal explained. “If the people are against us, we cannot be successful. If the people view us as occupiers and the enemy, we can’t be successful and our casualties will go up dramatically….
“I knew this was an important issue, but since I’ve been here the last two and a half months, this civilian casualty issue is much more important than I even realized. It is literally how we lose the war or in many ways how we win it.”
The counter-argument was offered last week by Ralph Peters, a former Army officer and now a columnist on military affairs in the New York Post:
“When enemy action kills our troops, it’s unfortunate. When our own moral fecklessness murders those in uniform, it’s unforgivable.
In Afghanistan, our leaders are complicit in the death of each soldier, Marine or Navy corpsman who falls because politically correct rules of engagement shield our enemies.
Mission-focused, but morally oblivious, Gen. Stan McChrystal conformed to the Obama Way of War by imposing rules of engagement that could have been concocted by Code Pink:
* Unless our troops in combat are absolutely certain that no civilians are present, they’re denied artillery or air support.
* If any civilians appear where we meet the Taliban, our troops are to “break contact” — to retreat…
We need to recognize that true morality lies in backing our troops, not in letting them die for whacko theories.
The next time you read about the death of a soldier or Marine in Afghanistan, don’t just blame the Taliban. Blame the generals and politicians who sent them to war, then took away their weapons. “
The dispute is at the heart of a longer piece I’m working on, as well as a book-length project. I side with McChrystal: This is not a war that we can hope to win through brute military force; among other reasons, we can deploy sufficient brute force only by instituting a draft and putting hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground there, and that’s just not going to happen.
The alternative approach is that outlined by McChrstal. If the population sides with us rather than the Taliban — if we demonstrate to them that their lives are more important to us than killing our enemy — we have a chance of winning their loyalty. And yes, the hard truth is that more Americans are likely to be killed in the short term while carrying out that strategy.
To be blunt, that’s just the cold calculus of war. If you need to take a hill to achieve victory, you do so knowing that hundreds of your own people are likely to be killed. If you’re not willing to take that risk, if force protection is your highest priority, then it’s time to bring the troops home because you’ve already decided that the goal isn’t worth the price.