Jim Houle: War going badly? Let’s just fire the General!

Redwood Valley

The abrupt dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal by President Obama confirms that the war in Afghanistan is going very badly indeed. The general would not have been fired for a few unguarded remarks to a 2nd tier magazine had the war been succeeding according to plan. It may well be that his only offense was to express in too blunt and undiplomatic a fashion the sentiments of broad sections of the US officer corps. Nevertheless, the COIN (counterinsurgency) strategy, that McChrystal himself designed and that his boss General Patraeus sold to Washington, is rapidly falling apart:

•The death toll for US and NATO troops rose to 85 so far in June, making this the worst month since the US invaded Afghanistan way back in October 2001.

•The US quartermasters who maintain the supply chain for war materiel hire various war lords to funnel these supplies from Pakistan ports and from Central Asian airports into our Afghani bases. A good portion of these transportation costs have now been exposed as flowing directly into the coffers of Taliban insurgents so as to convince them not to attack the trucks. Thus, the Pentagon is indirectly financing the insurgency to the tune of approximately $2 million a week.

•The failure of the US intervention in the southern town of Marjah this spring is now admitted (McChrystal calls it “a bleeding ulcer”). The Marjah campaign was intended to demonstrate how COIN would win local support (McChrystal jokingly called it ‘government in a box’). The major advance into Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, has had to be postponed at least until next fall.

•Amongst the Afghan people, President Hamid Karzai is widely reviled as a corrupt American puppet while his brother continues to operate a major opium entrepot. Opium remains the country’s major cash crop (right next to US handouts and bribes).

•Antiwar sentiment amongst our NATO allies is mounting, while in the United States only 44% now say the war is worth fighting, down from 56% three years ago.

•The Rolling Stone article, which presumably led to McChrystal’s dismissal June 23rd, and a New York Times article by C.J. Chivers both describe growing frustration among field officers, NCOs and rank-and-file soldiers in Afghanistan with McChrystal’s counter-insurgency tactics, which, in the name of reducing civilian casualties, call for “further tightening rules guiding the use of Western firepower—air strikes and guided rocket attacks, artillery barrages and even mortar fire to support troops on the ground”.

•“The disrespectful behavior of the US commander in Afghanistan and his aides was symptomatic of a more deeply rooted, potentially dangerous malaise” writes Simon Tisdall in the UK Guardian (06/24/10). Surveys show that a majority of active-duty officers believe that senior officers should insist on making civilian officers accept their viewpoints and that only 29% believe that high-ranking civilians, rather than their military counterparts, should have the final say on what type of military force to use. “We want to fight like we did in Iraq and like we did in Afghanistan before McChrystal. I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts”, said a former Special Forces operator. “His rules of engagement put soldiers lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing”. (Hastings in Rolling Stone 06/22/10).

•The support for the change of commanders by congressional Republicans and many right-wing media pundits shows that many had lost confidence in the General and his counter-insurgency strategy. In fact three of the most pro-war US Senators, McCain, Graham and Lieberman, issued a statement condemning McChrystal’s recent comments and right wing media seems to agree to his being sacked.

•Obama’s selection of Petraeus to replace McChrystal is a clear effort to appease these right-wing critics. The appointment of Petraeus was suggested in advance by neoconservative columnist William Kristol, and hailed by the right-wing media as a political masterstroke (WSWS 06/24/10).

In relieving General Stanley McChrystal of command US and NATO forces in Afghanistan on June 23rd, Obama intended to emphasize that he remained fully in support of the program of military escalation and counterinsurgency warfare with which McChrystal is identified. He pledged to do “whatever is necessary to succeed in Afghanistan,” adding, “This is a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy.”. Yet most Americans are thoroughly confused as to what our policy may actually be. Nowhere in the Rolling Stone article does it suggest that McChrystal disagreed with the Obama policy in Afghanistan. This is hardly surprising given that he wrote the policy himself. The old saw that “the more things change, the more they remain the same” seems to have been inverted: “The longer things remain the same (la meme chose), the more likely they must change”. There seems little doubt now that a serious reassessment of our strategy is taking place behind this facade of steadfastness. McChrystal may have done Obama a favor by forcing a re-examination of strategy now before things get any worse.

The New York Times ((06/24/10) demands “a serious reassessment now of the military and civilian strategies”. STRATFOR, the respected voice of many former intelligence operatives and policy analysts, feels that the Afghan war is much bigger than the counter-insurgency plan championed by McChrystal and Petraeus and that the war is unwinnable by force of arms no matter how concentrated the focus is on counter-insurgency (Stratfor 06/23/10). “At the end of the day, no matter who is in charge, the American-led effort in Afghanistan remains deeply intractable with limited prospects for success” (Stratfor 06/24/10).

Just What Is Our Mission?
Obama, while announcing the dismissal of General McChrystal, attempted once again to define our mission as: “To disrupt, dismantle and defeat AlQaeda”. Yet, General Petraeus estimated total AlQaeda strength in Afghanistan in the “double digits” in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (06/17/10). This is the same figure General Jim Jones, our National Security Advisor, gave Obama at year end. We rarely hear of any encounters between our 90,000 soldiers and this “real enemy” AlQaeda.

Instead, we continue to fight the Taliban. Obama says that our task is merely “to break the momentum of the Taliban” while not telling us what that could possibly mean short of extermination (WH announcement 06/23/10). Back in 2008 while campaigning, Obama argued that Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time, but Afghanistan was a necessary war. His reasoning went that the real threat to the US came from AlQaeda and Afghanistan had been its sanctuary. Were the US to abandon Afghanistan, AlQaeda would re-establish itself and once again threaten our Homeland (George Friedman,Stratfor 21/10/09). Looking back at this twisted logic, one must ask not only who was briefing Obama back in 2008, but how in the world he has managed to hold on to such a fatuous scenario ever since. None of the 19 named hijackers was Afghani, the Taliban had no hand in the 9/11 planning, and even the FBI has been forced to admit that “they had no hard evidence connecting bin Laden to 9/11” (Statement by Rex Tomb, FBI Chief of Investigative Publicity as reported in Muckraker Report 06/06/06).

The counter-insurgency strategy developed by McChrystal and Petraeus and announced by Obama last October was given eighteen months to demonstrate its efficacy. It proposed that we form strong bonds with local populations so as to provide intelligence against the Taliban operating in their areas. The US did this sort of thing with the Sunnis in Iraq in 2006 when we paid each of them $300 per week to stop fighting us. If COIN is to work, we must protect those who wish to cooperate with us, and this entails putting both US and Afghan troops as close to the Afghan people as possible, mainly in densely populated areas. We would need to curtail air and ground fire in such centers since that would run counter to the mission of protecting the population while winning them over. STRATFOR reports that “US and Afghani troops are unable to provide security to local populations and the locals do not appear interested or willing to break with the Taliban and cooperate with the Afghan government” (Stratfor 06/23/10). President Karzai continues to meet with Taliban leaders and the State Department has expressed interest in such talks. But, so far the State Department, neither in the person of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry or Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, has had much to do with directing our program in Afghanistan. They certainly haven’t been meeting with the locals.

Joseph Biden has emerged as a strong backer of the counter-terrorism strategy. Last fall, during the question-and-answer session following a speech he gave in London, McChrystal dismissed the counter-terrorism strategy being advocated by Vice President Joe Biden and Ambassador Eikenberry as “shortsighted,” saying it would lead to a state of “Chaos-istan.” The remarks earned him a smack down from the President himself, who summoned the general to a terse private meeting aboard Air Force One. The message to McChrystal seemed clear: “Shut the fuck up, and keep a lower profile”. Counter-terrorism would involve a smaller US armed force in country and rely more heavily upon aerial attacks and artillery as “force multipliers” to root Taliban from well entrenched positions and from population centers.

Make Peace With the Taliban: Negotiate with the Taliban, as we did with the Sunnis In Iraq. Pay whatever it takes to get them on our side. Gates and others admit that the Taliban has too much internal discipline right now to allow meaningful negotiation (OK – we’ll make it $500 a week). There is support within the State Department for Karzai’s reconciliation efforts. (Stratfor 06/23/2010).

Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: Andrew J. Bacevich, Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University and a West Point graduate as well, focused in his 2005 book “The New American Militarism” on how Americans have increasingly found themselves in thrall to military power and the idea of global military supremacy. He speaks of the “normalization of war and the acceptance of an unchallenged American military superiority”. David Lowe feels that “America is in a state of perpetual war. Before, it was the Cold War and now it is the War on Terror, AlQaeda and Islamic Terrorism, rather than Communism”. (Twitter 01/14/10). Noam Chomsky posits that a state of perpetual war is an aid to the most powerful leaders of our society to help them maintain positions of economic and political superiority. (Wikipedia). It may well be that the America military-industrial cabal has no intention whatsoever of totally withdrawing from either Afghanistan or Iraq, where we have now retreated to five huge crusader-like fortifications and can still keep our thumb upon those who run the local government while avoiding casualties that so upset the American public.

One Term Obama?:
Petraeus, with his solid reputation in Congress can provide the political cover for Obama to again shift strategies in Afghanistan. If he can somehow avoid getting Obama’s War blamed on him, we could see Petraeus as the Republican candidate for President in 2012. Paul Craig Roberts, who was Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, reminds us that: “Once the Roman Senate collapsed, the executive branch became the captives of the military. Now with General Petraeus replacing McChrystal in Afghanistan, we have Obama elevating Petraeus to the Republican presidential nomination in the next election. Thus Obama will have replaced himself with a man who can unify the military and executive branches” (06/24/10 ICH).

But What Do The Afghanis Want?
Washington has not bothered to ask them.