McChrystal on what's needed (beyond troops) in Afghanistan

Spiegel Online International features a fascinating interview this morning with General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. The English website of the German magazine asks McChrystal specifically about “evaporating” support for the mission, particularly with the Canadian and Dutch government’s scheduled to pull their troops out next year.

Here’s his reply: “It’s not numbers of soldiers, it’s not particular capabilities—it’s a willingness to be a part of a team and to adapt ourselves to this mission. Good partnership is key. Each of the 44 nations [contributing to the international coalition] brings different capabilities, different strengths. The Afghan people can feel it, they take strength from it. And the enemy can also feel it.”

That’s a generous response from a military leader. However, other parts of the interview make me wonder if Canada might not be subtracting even more from the Afghanistan picture than we realize. Our withdrawal won’t merely mean pulling away guys with guns and armored vehicles; Canadian troops will also take home with them whatever nuanced understanding of they have gained of Afghan society over several costly, punishing years on the ground in Kandahar.

And in McChrystal’s conception, it’s those hard-earned insights that matter most. “In a counter-insurgency the terrain is the people, rather than bridges and hills and forests,” he says. “You have to understand tribes, leaders and the economic forces at work. Otherwise you can’t deny the insurgency.”

I’ve spoken with members of Canada’s Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar who talk in those terms. They report on how hard it can be to sort out shifting alliances among local leaders in the many districts of Kandahar. Is there any way Canadians can pass their knowledge along to whatever international forces replace them next year?

Or is there a way to make sure the most useful Canadian civilians remain in Afghanistan, especially Kandahar, even without Canadian troops to protect them?  McChrystal pleads for compact groups of real specialists, not large numbers, to be contributed to the cause. “What you need is experts,” he says, “agricultural experts, economic experts, sometimes engineering, water engineering experts.”

The Prime Minister has been more than clear lately on his determination not to be drawn into some sort of extension of Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan. After 2011, Stephen Harper says, Canada’s contribution will be strictly civilian. Given that, and given what McChrystal says, it’s time to start discussing in detail how then to make sure the valuable understanding Canadians have gained isn’t wasted in the process of military withdrawal.