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Obama, McChrystal and the Unpalatable Truth

June 23, 2010

McChrystal is out, Petraeus is in, and the long war in Afghanistan rumbles on.

An uncharacteristically tight-lipped Gen. McChrystal

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.

McChrystal's successor: an upbeat Gen. Petraeus

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.

Afghanistan: how much longer?

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.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. June 26, 2010 10:28 am

    Assessing Afghanistan as a no-win seems to be about right. Maybe (but maybe not) we had a chance to make a lasting change in the first year or two of the war, but we chose to ignore it and start the catastrophe in Iraq. Both were colossal mistakes that cannot be undone.

    A minor counterpoint. You commented that Afghanistan was a “good” war with part of the rationale being how awful the Taliban were to its people, especially women. That makes me a bit uneasy. For me, the only rational for war was that we were attacked. Saddam Hussein was awful to his people, but now in retrospect I believe that Iraq would have been much better off with him staying power and us never having invaded. Once we leave Iraq, I suspect that the country will descend into civil war with endless bloodshed. That will likely continue until the next dictator finally claws his way into power over a pile of corpses. That would a new dictator I suggest we should leave alone.

    There are lots of other awful governments in the world, e.g. North Korea. There is nothing we can or should do about them unless they attack us (or are KNOWN, repeat, KNOWN, to be an imminent threat). The people of each country has to find their own way to modern civilization. America can encourage the process, but trying to force it in war is doomed to fail.

  2. June 26, 2010 2:31 pm

    Welcome to The New Moderate, Andy. Good points, well stated. I hope you didn’t get the impression that I favor toppling any rogue government around the world. I don’t believe in policing other states or even pre-emptive war, though part of me would love to see C.I.A. operatives at work in Iran, Zimbabwe and North Korea. (Whatever happened to the C.I.A, anyway?)

    No, all I meant was, given the urgency of retaliation for 9/11, our invasion of Afghanistan was a good thing. The fact that we were supposed to topple a government that oppressed its people and aided terrorism made it an even better thing.

  3. Priscilla permalink
    June 29, 2010 11:52 pm

    Actually, I think that the interesting thing about McChrystal and Obama is that here we have McChrystal – a self-admitted liberal, who was willing to try and fight this war with far fewer troops than he thought necessary for success, agreed to oppressively restrictive rules of engagement, as well as to a draw down date – things that virtually guaranteed that the conflict would become unmanageable, from both a political and a military perspective…….and he was fired in favor of general who will probably agree to none of those things, a general who was called a liar by Hillary Clinton, attacked in the “Betray-us” ad by Move-on org. and, let’s face it, the architect of the Surge that Obama strongly opposed and never admitted was successful.

    What does this tell us about the situation in Afghanistan? I think it tells us that things must be going pretty damn bad, and Obama thinks that 1) Petraeus may be the only guy that can turn things around and/or 2) he needs Petraeus to give him political cover when he makes the inevitable decision NOT to withdraw our troops next summer. It will be interesting to see how Obama’s anti-war base will respond to all of this…..

    • June 30, 2010 5:41 pm

      Priscilla: I hadn’t thought about Obama using the militarily aggressive Petraeus as political cover for prolonging the war. But of course you’re right. It’s really a damned if you do/don’t situation: If we withdraw too soon, Afghanistan will revert to the Taliban and we will have accomplished nothing in 10 years of fighting. If we keep feeding American lives to the war machine, we could see another antiwar movement — from Obama’s own base. Obama needs a convenient scapegoat if things don’t work out.

      What continually astounds me is that the military experts never seem to look at the big picture: can a conventional army defeat scattered fanatical guerrillas fighting in their own homeland (and an extremely fragmented and inhospitable homeland, at that)? ‘Course not! It’s as if we learned nothing from Vietnam.

      • valdobiade permalink
        July 1, 2010 8:32 pm

        Rick wrote: “It’s as if we learned nothing from Vietnam.”

        It is worse than Vietnam. I’ve seen this movie about war in Iraq, with a guy who take out explosives on the street of Baghdad.

        Man! Such a stupid war! The old Bush was right to stop and turn, but the young Bush… soooo stupid!
        What kind of war is it when you don’t know even how your enemies look like?

  4. July 2, 2010 9:20 am

    Valdo: Was that movie “The Hurt Locker”? I still haven’t seen it.

    Anyway, Bush the Elder came in for a lot of criticism because he didn’t “finish the job” and chase the Iraqis back to Baghdad. Well, his son finished the job instead, and we all saw what happened.

    I don’t know why it’s so difficult for our military to realize that a conventional army can’t win a war against scattered guerrillas. It’s impossible. They have no capital city to occupy, no infrastructure to destroy. As I’ve said here many times, we’d have to kill every last one of them to declare any kind of victory. All we can do is kill a bunch of them, set their efforts back a few years, and get out while we’re ahead. But if they’re fanatical enough, they’ll regroup and get what they want.

    • Anonymous permalink
      July 2, 2010 1:26 pm

      Yes Rick it was “The Hurt Locker”
      I think it got some Oscars because it shows the stupidity of this kind of war. The old Bush was smart not to continue the fight in Baghdad. Who criticized him were idiots who did not know how to fight an unknown kind of war. Now Bush-the-Young got us there not learning even from Russians war in Afghanistan.

      We condemned the atrocities the Russians used in Afghanistan, but it was a clear war, you kill until the bad government capitulates. We, the US of A, got an idiotic tactic you can see in “The Hurt Locker”. The bad government already capitulated but then you want to save Iraqi people who don’t even believe in “American Democracy”. Still we are killed because we don’t have a clue who are actually our enemies.
      The “hero” in the movie risks his life just for the heck of fun having detonating bombs, while after he finish his job, rocks are thrown at him from “ungrateful” locals.
      The guy can go back in the US and have his life with his family, but NO, he goes back to Iraq as if detonating bombs will solve anything. He may save some lives of these ingrate Iraqi, but they will always be oppressed by their religion.
      We already put a puppet government, let’s get the hell out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Catching Osama bin Laden will not solve anything, he just made his role, to get USA in the war. Boy, are Americans loving wars! Go from the Nintendo console, get a gun and “live” the real war. Who care about the people in Iraq when we can get such a cheap oil for our guzzlers? It’s just a big BS that we liberate oppressed innocents, we just liberate where we have an interest.
      Killing Osama, or worse, putting him on trial is just for the political circus.

      • valdobiade permalink
        July 2, 2010 1:27 pm

        forgot to write my name in the above post

  5. Priscilla permalink
    July 2, 2010 11:45 pm

    So, Valdo, it was Bush-the-Younger who said that we should pull our troops out of Iraq, where we achieved a significant degree of military and political success after the surge and, instead of bringing them home, send them instead to Afghanistan, where they appear hopelessly entangled in a guerilla war against tribal jihadists? Oops, oh wait…no, that was Obama who made that call.

    I agree that chasing OBL is a useless endeavor (especially given that he is probably in Pakistan), but, after 7 years of claiming that Afghanistan was the “good” war and Iraq was the “bad” war, Obama and the Democrats felt that they had to follow through, or risk looking weak on national security. Afghanistan is Obama’s war, and I am starting to agree with those who are starting to describe it as a quagmire.

    • taliesinknol permalink
      July 3, 2010 11:32 pm

      The only person I’ve heard the “good war” slogan from voted for Bush twice and then Mcain… so, not exactly the “stop all war” liberal slogan there. Also, calling Afghanistan “Obama’s War” seems to be what got Steele into trouble. Not even other conservatives believe it. And I still don’t think the surge was what worked in Iraq, the ethnic violence had died down by then and pretty much the only people fighting were doing because we were there.

  6. Priscilla permalink
    July 4, 2010 9:29 am

    Well, here is a quote from Time Magazine, in last week’s issue, in an article on the Petraeus appointment:

    “Campaigning for the presidency, Obama was very much aware that a solution to his party’s perceived military weaknesses was necessary after the Sept. 11 attacks. His answer had the virtue of being politically adept and substantively valid: Iraq had been the wrong war. Afghanistan was the right one, because it had been the home of al-Qaeda, and it had been neglected by George W. Bush.”

    Time is not known for any pro Bush/pro McCain bias that I know of……plus, how many times did John Kerry pontificate during the 2004 campaign about how we had “taken our eye off the ball” and let OBL escape after Tora Bora or something…….?

    In Iraq, we overthrew a murderous tyrant, helped establish a stable and functioning democratic government, and -what! – the evil Bush signed an agreement to withdraw our troops by 2011, when, presumably, Iraq would be strong enough to stand alone…’s interesting that Obama takes credit for beginning that withdrawal.

    I like Steele, but he is somewhat of a gaffe-machine ( a little like our veep)………….

  7. valdobiade permalink
    July 6, 2010 12:34 pm

    Priscilla wrote: Afghanistan is Obama’s war, and I am starting to agree with those who are starting to describe it as a quagmire.

    There is no way for a new US President to take a “clean plate” from a former President. So, if McCain would be President, then you would call these wars Palin’s wars, for at least she knows how to handle a gun from helicopter. So, maybe you’re right if you say that Repubs would handle the wars better than Dems, because every failure of Repubs is “Mission Accomplished”.

  8. Priscilla permalink
    July 7, 2010 12:28 am

    Umm, ok….

    • valdobiade permalink
      July 7, 2010 12:21 pm

      Priscilla wrote: In Iraq, we overthrew a murderous tyrant, helped establish a stable and functioning democratic government…

      Umm, ok… Back in my ex-communist country, we called the above quote “wood language”. Also, for bigger effect, when you are voicing that quote, hit the table and stare at the audience for a good 10 seconds. Then wait for people to scream: “Viva Zapata”! 🙂

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