Merchant of Death
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Why McChrystal Should be Listened To On Afghanistan
The bleak assessment by NATO and U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, of the Afghanistan conflict is strikingly similar to a bleak assessment given by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) of the Colombia conflict in 1998.

While one must be careful not to overdue comparisons of conflicts that have significant differences, I think the parallel shows two things in conflicts where the non-state actors receive haven in neighboring countries and derive much of their funding from the drug trade: 1) One should listen carefully to Gen. McChrystal, particularly on the loss of legitimacy of the Afghan government and 2) the situation is not irreversible, as Colombia has shown.

As a reporter for the Washington Post at the time, I was given access to the report, which predicted the Marxist FARC rebels could take over the country within five years. At the time this is what I wrote, and see if it sounds vaguely familiar:

The Colombian military has proved to be inept, ill-trained and poorly
equipped. Of the 120,000 armed forces members, only 20,000 are equipped and prepared for combat, according to U.S. intelligence sources. Standard military doctrine holds that a regular army needs a 10-to-1 advantage in size to defeat a well-equipped and steadfast insurgency.

The pessimistic assessment of the situation in Colombia, which
produces 80 percent of the world's cocaine and a growing share of
the heroin consumed in the United States, was echoed by Gen.
Charles Wilhelm, chief of the U.S. Southern Command, which is
responsible for U.S. security in Latin America.

"The primary vulnerability of the Colombian armed forces is their
inability to see threats, followed closely by their lack of competence
in assessing and engaging them," Wilhelm told a congressional
hearing on March 31.

At the time, Colombia's electoral campaign had been badly tainted by the fact that the victor, Ernesto Samper, had taken $6 million from the Cali cartel for his electoral campaign. The government had lost much of its legitimacy in the eyes of the middle class, and had already lost it in much of the rural areas where the FARC was strongest.

McChyrstal, in his assessment, echoes the weakness of the local forces and the lack of credibility of the the Karzi government.

"The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF's own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government," McChrystal says.

If there is not a government worth fighting for, people will not fight. It is a basic fact of counterinsurgency and of life. The corrupted electoral process in Afghanistan has, as has been noted, one clear victor: the Taliban. Those who run such systems do their country a deep disservice for the unforgivable goal of perpetrating themselves in power.

Colombia survived because of timely and well-directed US aid in addition to a radical restructuring of the Colombian armed forces. The senior officer corps at the time, many with ties to violent and illegal paramilitary groups, were swept aside and a new group of radical thinking officers emerged. What was important about that effort, in addition to the results, is that it was led from within the Colombian military and was an internal process which the United States had little to do with.

That is what must happen in Afghanistan, or the war will be lost. The tainted government must regain a modicum of legitimacy or perish. The armed forces must decide it is their fight, not the fight of NATO or the US, and lead their reforms themselves. If not, they will lose, no matter how much money and blood outsiders pour in there.

Colombia had the political will to move back from the precipice. Afghanistan may not. Gen. McChrystal is right. Without a legitimate government people are willing to fight for, there is simply no way to win.
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