Jon Landay has a very good piece about Gen. McChrystal overruling his officers’ judgment in eastern Afghanistan about closing two remote military outposts that “were worthless and too costly to defend.” An official investigation into a deadly insurgent attack on one of them last fall ignored McChrystal’s role in the decision and appears to hang out to dry the colonel and the lieutenant colonel who wanted the bases shuttered. That’s wrong and can’t be allowed to happen. But McChrystal’s judgment in this case appears to be on the continuum between defensible and solid.
Here’s why McChrystal kept the bases in Nuristan Province open:
Nuristan Gov. Jamalluddin Badr pressured the United States publicly and privately to keep troops in Barg-e Matal to prevent the village from falling to the Taliban before Afghanistan’s Aug. 20 presidential election. The two U.S. defense officials said McChrystal’s decision to keep the outpost there open until the local militia was trained was intended to help Badr survive the political fallout had insurgents captured the village after an American withdrawal.
“Everyone knew why we were in Barg-e Matal,” one U.S. defense official said. “McChrystal . . . was not in favor of pulling out because of the political ramifications.”
Now, perhaps Governor Badr was just saving his ass. But perhaps he was also legitimately concerned with keeping Barg-e Matal out of the Taliban’s hands. Either way, here’s the governor of an Afghan province expressly asking the U.S. to delay redeployment — McChrystal has explicitly ordered remote outposts closed so as to focus on population centers — because of the prospect of Taliban infiltration, something that happens quite a lot in eastern provinces bordering Pakistan.
Say you’re McChrystal. You’re working on a campaign plan predicated on convincing the Afghan people their material needs — security, government services, economic activity, justice — will be secured by an Afghan government for now backstopped by NATO forces. That’s the heart of everything you will do in Afghanistan. You recognize that a move away from an ineffectual counterterrorism basing posture requires closing bases that aren’t in and around population centers. But an Afghan governor comes to you and says to hold off on closing one, just for a few months, so as not to give the Taliban the run of the place. Your commanders in the area say the base isn’t defensible. Their judgment can’t be ignored. But what will it mean for the broader objectives of the campaign if you ignore the Afghan governor and leave him and Barg-e Matal to its fate? Why will the Afghans, who’ve been let down so much by empty American promises, read that move as anything other than the U.S. viewing its peoples’ lives as more precious than theirs?
I’m not saying this is an easy call. I am not qualified to assess the defendability of a combat outpost and so I defer to Col. George and Lt. Col. Brown. I have been to a combat outpost in Paktia Province manned by a single cavalry troop that made me, in my very inexpert judgment, worry about its exposure to assault. And if there’s a decision made to keep the bases open, it’s more than legitimate to ask whether they could have been reinforced — and if so, why they weren’t (as they apparently weren’t).
But this is the sort of war where the perceptions of the Afghan people, as McChrystal famously said in his confirmation hearing, are strategically decisive. (That’s why it’s encouraging and not embarrassing that NATO polled the residents of Marja before Operation Moshtarek.) You obviously can’t protect everywhere. But there really is strategic value, if not uncomplicated value, to listening to Afghan officials when they ask you to keep a prophylactic presence against the Taliban, if only for a little while and however complicated by the prospect of a looming election. This is a judgment call. But it reflects favorably on the commander’s judgment that he prioritized his support for the Afghans when he made it.