Winning the Battle of Perceptions: A Quick Look at the McChrystal Recommendations

The prematurely released McChrystal paper on Afghanistan is a revealing document of the prevailing Pentagon mindset on the US-led war in Afghanistan. The paper acknowledges that the US and its allies face not only a “resilient and growing insurgency” and that “there is a crisis of confidence among Afghans — in both their government and the international community — that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents,” yet places the blame for this crisis on the failure of the United States and NATO (or the ISAF: International Security Assistance Force ) troops to convince the Afghan population that ISAF can defeat the resistance. In what this writer can only construe as a prime example of Washington’s hubris, McChrystal and his co-authors write that the reason the Afghan population has not flocked to the side of Washington and its forces is because they see the ISAF as occupiers, not as some kind of “guests.” Given this, one of the goals of the new strategy outlined by the paper is to change this perception.

Unsaid, of course, is that guests do not come barging onto one’s house with their guns blazing, bombs dropping, and with the intention of arresting or killing the residents who do not want the guests there. Also unsaid is that as long as Washington and its ISAF are in Afghanistan they will be considered occupiers for the simple reason that they are occupying the country. In other words, the ISAF troops obey only those local laws they deem fit to obey and only when they feel it to be to their advantage to do so; they come and go at will, taking over villages and homes when it serves their needs; and their commanders in Washington decide who will lead the Afghan government. Those are some of the basic facts of Washington and ISAF’s presence in Afghanistan. They can not be explained away via a public relations campaign aimed at changing the Afghan people’s perception of the occupiers’ presence.

There is a sentence in the report that is laughably ironic and represents the fantastical foundation on which the report is built. That sentence reads: “We must never confuse the situation as it stands with the one we desire.” Yet, this is exactly what the paper does. Its primary impetus is one that targets the Afghan population’s perception of the foreign military presence in their land. It calls the US and NATO occupation of Afghanistan different from the previous Soviet occupation, as if the 2001 invasion and the subsequent eight years of Washington’s war had not killed thousands of Afghans, thereby stoking the resentment of the local population and consequently increase support for the resistance. In its comments about the insurgents’ strategies, McChrystal’s report states that the insurgents “wage a “silent war” of fear, intimidation, and persuasion throughout the year-not just during the warmer weather “fighting season” — to gain control over the population. As any student of counterinsurgency knows, these tactics are used by both sides in a war such as that being fought in Afghanistan. The failure to acknowledge this gives lie to the aforementioned statement that we must not confuse the reality of the situation with the reality we desire.

Throughout the paper, there is an undertone that suggests that the primary problem with the war is that the Afghan people are perceiving it the wrong way. Consequently, the need to change that perception is referred to over and over. Yet, as mentioned before, it is difficult to change the reality of the war when one lives with it daily, like the Afghans do. It seems to me that the paper’s authors actually believe that it is the population of the ISAF nations whose perception of the war and occupation needs to be changed, not the Afghan population’s. The Afghans’ perception is purely secondary, since Washington will do what it wants in that country no matter what the Afghan population thinks. However, if the US people began demanding a withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, the battle to escalate the Afghan war would become that much harder McChrystal and all those who stand to gain from it.

To its credit, the McChrystal paper describes the resistance to the occupiers as being composed of more than the Afghan Taliban. Indeed, three major groups are named and briefly described. In addition, the reader is presented with the Pentagon’s understanding of the various group’s goals and strategies. According to the paper, these strategies involve playing different tribes off each other, employing radical mullahs to encourage Afghans to support the campaign against occupation and capitalizing on vast unemployment by empowering the young and disenfranchised through cash payments, weapons, and prestige. If one examines the strategies of the US occupiers in Iraq, it is quite clear that Washington mirrored these same strategies, playing tribes off one another, selecting certain religious leaders to recruit support, and arming and employing Iraqi men to serve as militias. Similar strategies are underway in Afghanistan, including the development of militias working for the US-sponsored regime in Kabul.

In short, the strategy outlined in the McChrystal paper is just another remake of standard counterinsurgency strategies. Despite its newspeak regarding the need to change strategies and its occasionally dire tone in terms of the threat to Washington’s success in the country, its true conclusion is that in order for Washington to win its war is by increasing troops, stepping up covert and black ops, and changing the perception of the war on the homefront while trying to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.

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  1. bozhidar balkas vancouver said on September 23rd, 2009 at 10:57am #

    The problem i have with the situation in afgh’n is that i must analyze it starting not from facts but postulates and other guesses.
    We have no factual knowledge about what wld nato consider as own defeat or defeat of pashtuns, et al.

    We also do not have the factual knowledge of what a perticular situation wld arise in afgh’n that nato wld call success?
    Wld a total withdrawal of troops [let's say, in '22 or '32] from afgh’n be considered defeat? Or near-total withdrawal but setting up army bases there?
    And after killing thousands or hundreds of thousands of afghanis?
    Does it really matter what we call it?

    It seems to me that the either-or structure of language used to limn afgh’n appears quite misleading; possibly used on purpose.
    I say this, because it wld have been war planners who wld declare victory or defeat in any US military venture.
    I do not think they wld ever declare a defeat. They and only they wld write history of afgh’n, palestine, and iraq.
    Children wld hear only ab. the glory and greatness of america regardless of facts.
    So, we can discount a defeat; it ain’t gonna be labeled that way. That leaves only success as an option. In any case, most people think ab. most military situations in terms of failure or success.

    After all, amerika had been free, noble, just, prudent, great, etc., even while there was slavery, lynchings, racism, segregation, 180 wars [all just and successful], thinnings of natives, etc.
    So why change the namecalls? Yes, it is that simple. Just choose a name! tnx

  2. John S. Hatch said on September 23rd, 2009 at 4:19pm #

    I’m always disturbed to see Afghans or Iraqis defending their own nations referred to as ‘insurgents’.

    The definition of insurgent is as follows:
    A person who rises in forcible opposition to lawful authority, esp. a person who engages in armed resistance to a government or to the execution of its laws; rebel.

    There is no lawful authority in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Those who fight against unlawful invasions are not insurgents.

    They are patriots.