(U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal aboard a helicopter in southern Afghanistan during a day-long assessment of progress in Helmand on Thursday, May 20, 2010.)
The questions were deliberately provocative. The discussions sometimes grew animated as generals and civilians verbally sparred with U.S, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as he oversaw a 10-hour, high-level assessment last week of progress in Helmand.
In meeting after meeting last Thursday, McChrystal worked to light a fire under U.S. generals, British commanders and Western strategists working to transform Marjah into a success.
After his recent visits to DC and Europe, McChrystal returned with a renewed appreciation for the political anxiety in the global capitals.
"People are asking: Are we failing?" McChrystal said in one briefing.
Throughout the day, McChrystal tried to impress upon the top military and civilian strategists that they needed to kick it into high gear.
"This is a bleeding ulcer right now," McChrystal told strategists at one point on the trip. "You don't feel it here, but I'll tell you, it's a bleeding ulcer outside."
Perhaps the most animated discussion of the day took place in the Helmand PRT where civilian and military leaders are working together to secure Marjah and Nad Ali.
"I think the pace of progress is satisfactory," said Ghulam Gilani Popal, the Afghan head of the independent directorate of local governance. "Some of the things we cannot expedite. Like how to restore the confidence of the people. That needs time. But the rest of the things are good."
"I have a slightly different view," McChrystal replied as his top commanders looked on. "I think that we’ve done well, but I think that the pace of security has been slower… I’m thinking that, had we put more force in there, we could have locked that place down better. That’s a bleeding ulcer right now. You don’t feel it here, but I’ll tell you, it’s a bleeding ulcer outside. We’re making progress. I have no doubt about that. But Kandahar is being judged through the lens of Marjah and that lens may not be fair, but that’s the lens…"
"In 2001, we were viewed as omniscient and omnipotent," said McChrystal. "That has decreased every year since.
When we can’t secure, I think there’s a perception that we don’t want to secure or there’s a perception that we’re not what they thought we were."
McChrystal's deliberately provocative attempts to spark a debate about troop levels did exactly that.
U.S. Major-Gen. Nick Carter, the commander of coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, challenged McChrystal.
"I don’t agree with you about putting more forces in there," said Carter. "I agree with Director Popal. This is about convincing people."
"You’re going to feel that," McChyrstal cut in in with a deadpan joke "It’s your plan."
"I am, sir," Carter replied. "You would have to put about five brigades in to achieve the effect you’re talking about and, even then, I bet the Taliban would get through because it’s in the minds of people. And I really don’t think, in Marjah in particular, it would have made much difference. I think what’s going to make the difference, whether we marketed it right or not at the beginning, is time. And it’s about persuading people."
"I think we have let too much move along without overwhelming enough security, and I think we are paying the price for it," said McChrystal.
Later, McChrystal explained his thinking more.
"What we have done, in my view, we have given the insurgency a chance to be a little bit credible because we’ve put in more forces than ever in an area with a unique situation. We said: We’re taking it back. We came in to take it back, and we haven’t been completely convincing."
McChrystal's staff invited McClatchy along for the day-long strategic assessment in an apparent attempt to convey the challenges strategists are facing and spotlight the progress they are making in Helmand.
To McChrystal's team, the progress in Marjah is "mixed" and there is no need to panic.
On the flight back to Kabul, McChrystal expressed confidence with the plans in southern Afghanistan.
McChrystal's view was backed by Mark Sedwill, the former UK ambassador to Afghanistan who is now NATO's senior civilian representative in the country.
Marjah, Sedwill conceded in an interview with McClatchy "is taking longer, frankly, than any of us would have hoped."
"Have they changed as fast as was reasonable to expect?" Sedwill said. "I don’t know. It was a long way gone, therefore I think patience is necessary. But I can quite understand why the sheer amount of attention created a sense of expectations that’s hard to fulfill.
I think it wasn’t really until we started holding these shuras that we realized, not how bad it was under the Taliban, because in a sense that was fairly obvious. But actually, what we hadn't really appreciated was how bad things had been beforehand and why the Taliban found fertile ground into which they could move and do well enough to raise their flags over it. You can only do that with the support of the people. And none of us, including the Afghans, had really understood why that had happened and quite how appalling the circumstances had been beforehand."
In a recent speech at London's Chatham House, Sedwill laid out a sobering picture of success in Afghanistan.
"If we succeed in regaining the initiative, resolving political tensions and
transitioning responsibility, what will Afghanistan look like by 2014 when
President Karzai's second term concludes and history begins the judgment
of the legacy he hands his successor?" Sedwill asked in the address.
"Afghanistan will still be poor and
rough, especially to the western eye," he said. "Illiteracy will still be rife, worse among
women and worse still in the rural areas. Respect for human rights, especially
women's and children's, will still be patchy. Corruption will still be entrenched
– getting Afghanistan up the Transparency Index to the levels of much of
Africa will be a dramatic success. To Western eyes, the levels of violence,
mostly tribal, land and water disputes, might seem eye-watering, punctuated
by eye-catching terrorist attacks from whatever remains of the insurgency."
"I know that doesn't sound as inspiring as some of the early nation-building
rhetoric, but think how much we will have achieved," Sedwill argued at the end of his speech. "Afghanistan will be stable
enough that the integrity of the nation is assured. Afghanistan's territory will
not be a safe haven for al-Qaeda or other groups to attack us or disrupt
Pakistan. Afghanistan's kaleidoscope of ethnic groups will be working
together through authentically Afghan and thus to the western eye confusing
parliamentary, shura and jirga mechanisms to share political power and the
economic benefits of Afghanistan's huge mineral resources. President Karzai
will be the first democratic Afghan leader to hand power to a democratic
successor, and one of very few to hand over his country in a dramatically
better condition than he inherited."
In the interview on Sunday, Sedwill conceded that the military coalition may have a difficult time at year's end demonstrating concrete progress.
If all goes well, Sedwill argued, the international coalition will be able to point to a series of positive benchmarks: From beginning to stabilize Marjah and holding a successful international conference this July in Kabul to helping to hold comparatively fair parliamentary elections and containing Taliban control in Kandahar.
"Personally, I'm probably slightly more confident than I am saying, but I'm not willing to jump ahead of where the evidence lies," said Sedwill. "The raw data I many areas will not look dramatically different by the end of the year, but I do believe that we will be able to show that the direction is positive... It's a hard argument, but it has to be good enough, because nobody every promised that it was going to be better than that."
(A U.S. military helicopter flies over a military base in southern Afghanistan.)