The quagmire gets worse

June 29, 2010

Nicole Colson explains that the media furor about Gen. Stanley McChrystal's comments obscure a larger reality about the U.S. war in Afghanistan--that it's unwinnable.

GEN. STANLEY McChrystal's career took a turn for the worse last week when a boatload of his scathing on-the-record comments about the war in Afghanistan and key Obama administration figures appeared in a Rolling Stone magazine article titled "The Runaway General." Barack Obama promptly fired McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

McChrystal and some of his top aides, stuck in Paris in April as a result of the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, made one blunt comment after another to reporter Michael Hastings, openly betraying disgust and contempt for various members of the administration, including the president.

According to one of McChrystal's aides, the first time Obama met with McChrystal one-on-one: "It was a 10-minute photo op. Obama clearly didn't know anything about him, who he was. Here's the guy who's going to run his fucking war, but he didn't seem very engaged. The Boss [McChrystal] was pretty disappointed."

Hastings' summary of the prevailing attitude--"[I]n private, Team McChrystal likes to talk shit about many of Obama's top people on the diplomatic side"--turns out to be almost tactful.

President Obama with General David Petraeus
President Obama with General David Petraeus (Staff Sgt. Lorie Jewell)

McChrystal's spouting off is nothing new. Last year, he essentially dared Obama to refuse him the troop increases he had requested as part of a "counter-insurgency" strategy that he supported--a troop surge combined with a counter-intelligence program to supposedly win the "hearts and minds" of Afghans, while isolating al-Qaeda and strengthening the Afghan government and military to eventually take over.

Obama gave in, raising the total number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 100,000.

DESPITE THE hand-wringing among both liberal and conservative commentators over McChrystal's "inappropriate" comments, the real issue shouldn't be these off-the-cuff remarks.

First off, the Obama administration is milking the scandal for all it's worth--since it gives Obama the chance to look "decisive" and "presidential" (while also providing a distraction from the crisis over the administration's handling of the BP oil spill). Typical was Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who called Obama's firing of McChrystal and replacement with Gen. David Petraeus a "rare" but welcome sight: "The commander-in-chief was being commanding."

Nor should anyone be shocked by McChrystal's ability to stick his own foot in his mouth. As Hastings pointed out, "When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made his infamous 'stuff happens' remark during the looting of Baghdad, McChrystal backed him up. A few days later, he echoed the president's Mission Accomplished gaffe by insisting that major combat operations in Iraq were over."

Additionally, McChrystal was directly implicated in the cover-up of the friendly fire death of NFL player-turned-Army-Ranger Pat Tillman, as sportswriter Dave Zirin and others have pointed out.

What most pundits are missing is the deeper truth about Hastings' article--it exposes the fact that the war in Afghanistan is not only not going as well as we've been repeatedly told, but it's increasingly seen by even military insiders as fundamentally "unwinnable."

For example, Hastings quoted one senior advisor to McChrystal saying, "If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular."

Considering that a majority of the U.S. population is already against what has become the longest war in U.S. history, that's quite a statement. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, while a majority of likely voters approve of McChrystal's firing, just 41 percent "now believe it is possible for the United States to win the nearly nine-year-old war in Afghanistan." Some 48 percent now say ending the war in Afghanistan is more important than winning it. Meanwhile, 53 percent of respondents in a Newsweek poll say they disapprove of how Obama is managing the war--up from just 27 percent in February.

McChrystal himself was blunt in his assessment of the war. Referring to "the biggest military operation of the year--a ferocious offensive that began in February to retake the southern town of Marja," Hastings wrote, McChrystal called the battle a "bleeding ulcer."

The general is right about that much. As Los Angeles Times reporter Laura King recently reported, a four-month-long offensive in Marja has not succeeded in winning "hearts and minds." Instead, even bakers in the town have shut down, after being threatened by the Taliban and told not to help Americans.

"By now," King wrote, "Marja, in strategic Helmand province, was supposed to have been a showpiece of what a judicious combination of Western military might and a ramping up of Afghan government services could accomplish. Instead, it has become something of a cautionary tale."

Meanwhile, the idea of a central government under President Hamid Karzai shouldering responsibility for the war by July 2011 (before Obama runs for re-election) is laughable to most serious analysts. Karzai himself has repeatedly signaled that he is open to negotiating with the Taliban, possibly as part of a deal brokered by Pakistan.

Although denied by U.S. and Pakistani officials, recent reports suggest that Karzai had met with Sirajuddin Haqqani, an insurgent leader of al-Qaeda-allied forces, in face-to-face talks that included Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kayani and the head of its intelligence services General Shuja Pasha. Karzai had reportedly been willing to offer Haqani a power-sharing arrangement in Kabul.

As Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA, admitted on ABC's This Week: "We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce al-Qaeda, where they would really try to become part of that society. My view is that...unless they're convinced the United States is going to win and that they are going to be defeated, I think it is very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that is going to be meaningful."

But that, according to Hastings and others, is increasingly unlikely--and in the meantime, McChrystal's "hearts and minds" strategy doesn't seem to be changing things on the ground. As Hastings wrote:

Even those who support McChrystal and his strategy of counterinsurgency know that whatever the general manages to accomplish in Afghanistan, it's going to look more like Vietnam than Desert Storm.

"It's not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win," says Major General Bill Maryville, who serves as chief of operations for McChrystal. "This is going to end in an argument."

BUT AN assessment like that doesn't fit the line that either the Pentagon or the Obama administration is trying to sell. So after McChrystal's ouster, military leaders rushed to defend "progress" in Afghanistan.

In a press conference, Defense Secretary Robert Gates dismissed media reports and said the the mission in Afghanistan was "hard but not impossible." "I do not believe we are bogged down," he said, employing language used during the Vietnam War. "I believe we are making some progress. It is slower and harder than we anticipated."

And, Gates assured the press, the Obama administration remains as committed to the war as ever. "No one--be they adversaries or friends, or especially our troops--should misinterpret these personnel changes as a slackening of this government's commitment to the mission in Afghanistan," Gates said. "We remain committed to that mission and to the comprehensive civil-military strategy ordered by the president to achieve our goals there."

On that score, at least, Gates was telling the truth. Press reports suggest that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has promised the administration that Congress would pass an additional $33 billion emergency war supplemental spending bill before the July Fourth recess.

The war in Afghanistan is now wholly Obama's, and he's responsible for each new casualty among Afghans and NATO forces alike.

The irony of McChrystal's dismissal is that one factor which had sparked dissatisfaction with his command among U.S, troops was his implementation of stricter rules of engagement for U.S. forces--in order to limit Afghan civilian casualties by prohibiting troops from firing unless they're shot at first, or from carrying out bomb or artillery attacks when civilians are near a target.

As one of his first acts as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Petraeus is reportedly relaxing the rules of engagement "to make it easier for U.S. troops to engage in combat with the enemy."

McChrystal's advocacy of a large-scale and long-term U.S. commitment to the Afghanistan war doesn't fit with the Obama administration's political strategy, particularly heading into a reelection campaign in 2010. So with McChrystal out, there is speculation that the administration may turn to a plan more similar to Joe Biden's "surge alternative"--including an increased troop presence, heavier engagement of enemy forces and greater use of unmanned aerial drones, with the (eventual) aim of a draw-down of U.S. forces.

"Instead of beginning to withdraw troops next year, as Obama promised, the military hopes to ramp up its counterinsurgency campaign even further," according to Hastings, who quoted a senior military official as saying, "There's a possibility we could ask for another surge of U.S. forces next summer."

In other words, we're not likely to see an end to the war in Afghanistan anytime soon--as the Obama administration has made abundantly clear. As Hastings wrote, "Facts on the ground, as history has proven, offer little deterrent to a military determined to stay the course."

And that spells disaster for the people of Afghanistan--and the rest of us.

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