international analysis and commentary

The other real war over Afghanistan

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Oceans of ink were spilled in late June regarding the sudden demise of General Stanley McChrystal, the late commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, an astonishing turn of events that was immediately followed by the astounding reemergence of General David Petraeus, the new would-be rescuer-in-chief of the beleaguered Kabul mission. Washington pundits watched in disbelief as a beleaguered White House managed to avert a near-certain PR-disaster by replacing the far-too-outspoken McChrystal with Petraeus, his strategic mentor and undisputed grey eminence among Pentagon hawks. By putting the former savior of Iraq in charge, Obama brilliantly deprived his critics on the right of ammunition and at the same time handing a poison chalice to Petraeus in Kabul, ridding himself of what might very well have been his most dangerous challenger in the approaching 2012 presidential elections.

While the foreground played out with all the fascination of a great White House soap opera (it resembled nothing so much as an episode of the first-rate American political series The West Wing), lost in all the immediate drama was the deeper, more profound point about what was really going on in Washington: namely a pivotal act in the ongoing struggle of defining the future of the Afghanistan mission.

It is a fight between the Pentagon hawks – who advocate a counter-insurgency strategy aimed at long-term nation-building – and the White House, which ultimately prefers a far more short-term counter-terrorism strategy focused on exiting Afghanistan in good order as quickly as possible without handing it back to al Qaeda and the more radical Taliban. With or without McChrystal, the military leadership wants to stay in Afghanistan for the long haul; with or without the General, the Obama White House is heading for the exits.

For McChrystal, like his mentor Petraeus, the recent setbacks and bleak facts on the ground in Afghanistan at present simply do not matter. The military/hawk logic works as follows: if the recent surge starts bearing fruit, all the more reason to see the plan through. If things keep going badly, all the more reason to put in more men and material to persevere. It’s an ‘In-In’ strategy, wholly in line with the military’s honorable tradition of seeing a mission through, with victory as the only acceptable outcome. America trains and promotes its uniformed leaders precisely to be can-do types, to strive, against all odds and often all reason, to stay the course and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

If the hawks’ goal in Afghanistan is ‘In-In,’ regardless of the facts on the ground, it is increasingly clear that the Obama-team has opted for an ‘Out-Out’ strategy. If the ongoing campaign turns out well (despite all current indications to the contrary), they will receive the credit for saving the day and can bring the troops home in triumph. If the war continues to go badly, well, the White House will insist it gave the hawks the generals they wanted, the plan they advocated, and the troops they requested. If all efforts falter nonetheless, that is irrefutably because the follies of the Bush years have left Afghanistan in such a state it is simply too far-gone to rescue from itself. And the troops must still come home.

It was this fundamental, unbridgeable difference that seems to have dawned on McChrystal, inciting his intemperate anger and leading him and his team to spew all their vitriol in the now infamous Rolling Stone article. Initially pleased that the White House had adopted his military strategy, the General as well as hawks back in Washington had blithely felt that once they began their offensive, the hated Obama timetable – mandating the beginning of an American withdrawal by July 2011 – would disappear, being finessed away by changing facts on the ground and the cloak of national security interests.

But the “wimps in the White House” turned out to be a very different breed of cat: skeptical, pragmatic, steely-eyed realists, tactically malleable, not wedded to an outcome and strategically focused on one goal: getting out as soon as possible without getting the blame for losing the war or leaving the country to America’s worst enemies.

McChrystal had come to realize that despite having agreed to the troop surge and the counter-insurgency strategy, Obama meant business with the July 2011 deadline and that it wasn’t just a fig leaf designed to bring the nervous Democratic base along. But the 18 months Obama gave McChrystal was never going to be sufficient time to allow for the nation-building exercise that is indispensable for a counter-insurgency strategy to bear fruit. From the General’s point of view, Obama was simply going through the motions. It’s as if, very late in the day, McChrystal realized he was the skipper of the Titanic, and moved to damn all the others in the administration who had so willingly led him to the bridge.

A clue to all this is that in the Rolling Stone piece the bulk of the General’s personal anger was directed at Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a former general himself and now Obama’s Ambassador in Kabul. Eikenberry, unlike McChrystal, has seen Karzai for the incompetent and corrupt leader he is, flatly stating that such a flawed vessel made any American counter-insurgency strategy almost impossible, as the critical local partner on the ground was so inadequate. For McChrystal, Eikenberry’s statements reflected a faux commitment to the counterinsurgency strategy, concealing a defeatist mindset focused on deflecting future blame for the mission’s failure, an attitude the hawks deem typical of many in the Obama administration.

The hard truth is that McChrystal might not be so far off the mark, for few outside the Pentagon brass and their neoconservative cheerleaders seem to believe in the longest military adventure in US history, one that has taken 9 years, and cost $1 trillion and 1,000 American lives. At best, the Obama team members are pragmatic skeptics about the mission, while many western allies (such as the Dutch and the Canadians) are heading for the exits, and President Karzai himself is on record as flatly stating the US cannot win the conflict. In reality, it seems the Obama team is covering its flanks while it maneuvers towards an end state in Afghanistan, focusing on the much more limited goal of counter-terrorism in 2011 (i.e. killing al Qaeda/Taliban types from the sky).

For the realists of today, this is a war from another age, when America was still the only superpower on the planet and could afford to dream of turning Afghanistan over decades into a functioning country and reliable Western ally. But the war is ending in the very different age of multipolarity, with the US in relative decline and no longer having the luxury of fighting wars of choice. Al Qaeda and the Taliban can be cowed by drone attacks in the area. But the grand goals of counter-insurgency and nation building seem to belong to an earlier, more forgiving age for American foreign and security policy.

A White House, mired in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, contending with the rise of China and an urgent need to cut overall expenditures, is merely managing Afghanistan as a costly inheritance from the feckless Bush era in urgent need of disinvestment. At the same time, Obama and his advisers are well aware that openly challenging the hawks on counter-insurgency would earn them a storm of criticism that might very well derail their domestic agenda. Given the circumstances, talking counter-insurgency while heading for a counter-terrorist strategy is a smart gambit. But it makes little sense to a McChrystal, bred in a military used to almost unlimited budgets, unlimited time to get things done, and few genuine strategic rivals to worry about.

As was true of MacArthur, the tragedy of Stanley McChrystal is that of a man whose time -unipolarity – has passed him by. It is Obama and his cohorts, who, dimly, imperfectly, but concretely, see the coming strategic limits for America in the coming age of multipolarity.