Obama, McChrystal and the Unpalatable Truth
McChrystal is out, Petraeus is in, and the long war in Afghanistan rumbles on.
President Obama, whose hellacious year in the White House should discourage any bright young idealist from aspiring to the Presidency for at least a generation, made the best of a lose-lose situation. If Obama had kept Gen. Stanley McChrystal at the helm of the Great Afghan War after the latter’s Rolling Stone scandal, he would have looked less than commanding as commander-in-chief. By replacing McChrystal, he risks shaking up the U.S. military and causing Taliban hearts to flutter with glee at our public family squabble.
So Obama made his decision. (There’s nothing like an inflammatory article in Rolling Stone to fire up this president’s “decider” impulses.) And he decided well. McChrystal deserved to go — not because what he said to Rolling Stone was so inflammatory (the juiciest comments were invariably attributed to “unnamed aides”), but because he and Obama clearly had different visions for conducting the war. And McChrystal apparently couldn’t defer to his boss without gritting his teeth.
His replacement, Gen. David Petraeus, is a formidable figure: hero of the Iraq Insurgency, ranked right up there with Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell in the tiny pantheon of outstanding post-WWII U.S. generals. Even his name carries a whiff of ancient Roman grandeur. (He’s actually of Dutch descent.) Petraeus was the president’s best possible choice for the job.
But what exactly is his job? Is the U.S. actually fighting to win the war against Taliban and al-Qaeda guerrillas in the fortresslike mountains of Afghanistan? The ghosts of thousands of British and Soviet fighting men would tell us to turn back: that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, a nightmare battleground that no conventional army can conquer.
Afghanistan was supposed to be the “good” post-9/11 war. Unlike our bogus invasion of Iraq, our push into Afghanistan was a righteous campaign to expel the militant Islamists who controlled the land, ruthlessly subjugated its people (especially the women) and actively promoted worldwide terrorism.
But good intentions won’t get you into heaven or win a war. The Taliban shows no evidence that it ever plans to capitulate; we’d have to kill every last one of them. By that time, twice as many militants would have risen up to take their place. This is the most unpalatable truth about Afghanistan — infinitely more unpalatable than the flippant remarks of McChrystal and his unnamed aides. I can almost sympathize with the frustrated American private who told Rolling Stone that we should just nuke the place.
We can’t fight in Afghanistan until Doomsday. All we can do is mount an offensive, try to break the backbone of the Islamist forces (for a few years at least), wish the “legitimate” government good luck, and get the hell out. That’s essentially Obama’s plan. But I have to wonder if Petraeus will be satisfied with anything less than total victory. He’s not a cynic like McChrystal; he’s all grit and determination, the right man to win a conventional war.
Too bad the enemy doesn’t fight conventional wars.