Less than a year ago, General David Petraeus saluted smartly and pledged his loyal support for President Barack Obama's decision to start withdrawing United States forces from Afghanistan in July 2011.
In December, when Obama decided (for the second time in 2009) to add tens of thousands of additional American forces to the war, he also slapped an 18-month deadline on the military to turn the situation around and begin handing security over to the bedraggled Afghan National Army (ANA) and police. Speaking to the nation from West Point, Obama said that he'd ordered American forces to start withdrawing from Afghanistan at that time.
Here's the exchange, between Obama, Petraeus and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as reported by Jonathan Alter in his new book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One:
Obama: "I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?"That seems unequivocal, doesn't it? Vice President Joe Biden, famously dissed as Joe Bite-Me by one of the now-disgraced aides of General Stanley McChrystal in the Rolling Stone profile that got him fired, seems to think so. Said Biden, again according to Alter: “In July of 2011, you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it.”
Petraeus: "Sir, I'm confident we can train and hand over to the ANA in that time frame."
Obama: "If you can't do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?"
Petraeus: "Yes, sir, in agreement."
Mullen: "Yes, sir."
In the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the US military, however, things are rarely what they seem. Petraeus, the Central Command chief "demoted" in order to replace McChrystal as US war commander in Afghanistan, seems to be having second thoughts about what will happen next July - and those second thoughts are being echoed and amplified by a phalanx of hawks, neo-conservatives, and spokesmen for the counter-insurgency (COIN) cult, including Henry Kissinger, the Heritage Foundation and the editorial pages of the Washington Post. Chiming in, too, are the lock-step members of the Republican caucus on Capitol Hill, led by Senator John McCain.
In testimony before congress just last week, Petraeus chose his words carefully, but he clearly wasn't buying the notion that the July deadline means much, nor did he put significant stock in the fact that Obama has ordered a top-to-bottom review of Afghan policy in December. According to the White House, that review will be a make-or-break assessment of whether the Pentagon is making any progress in the nine-year-long conflict against the Taliban.
In his recent senate testimony - before he fainted, and afterwards - Petraeus minimized the significance of the December review and cavalierly declared that he "would not make too much of it". Pressed by McCain, the general flouted Biden's view by claiming that the deadline is a date "when a process begins [and] not the date when the US heads for the exits".
The right's marching orders for the president
Petraeus' defiant declaration that he wasn't putting much stock in the president's intending to hold the military command accountable for its failure in Afghanistan next December earned him an instant rebuke from the White House. Now, that same Petraeus is in charge.
The dispute over the meaning of July 2011 is, and will remain, at the very heart of the divisions within the Obama administration over Afghan policy.
Last December, in that West Point speech, Obama tried to split the difference, giving the generals what they wanted - a lot more troops - but fixing a date for the start of a withdrawal. It was hardly a courageous decision. Under intense pressure from Petraeus, McChrystal and the GOP, Obama assented to the addition of 30,000 US troops, ignoring the fact that McChrystal's unseemly lobbying for the escalation amounted to a Douglas MacArthur-like defiance of the primacy of civilian control of the military. (Indeed, after a speech McChrystal gave in London insouciantly rejecting Biden's scaled-down approach to the war, Obama summoned the runaway general to a tarmac outside Copenhagen and read him the riot act in Air Force One.)
If Obama's Afghan decision was a cave-in to the brass and a potential generals' revolt, the president also added that kicker of a deadline to the mix, not only placating his political base and minimizing Democratic unhappiness in congress, but creating a trap of sorts for Petraeus and McChrystal. The message was clear enough: deliver the goods, and fast, or we're heading out, whether the job is finished or not.
Since then, Petraeus and McChrystal - backed by their chief enabler, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Republican holdover appointed to his position by George W Bush - took every chance they could to downplay and scoff at the deadline.
By appointing Petraeus last Wednesday, Obama took the easy way out of the crisis created by McChrystal's shocking comments in Rolling Stone. It might not be inappropriate to quote that prescient British expert on Afghan policy, Peter Townsend, who said of the appointment: "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss."
On the other hand, Petraeus is not simply another McChrystal. While McChrystal implemented COIN doctrine, mixing in his obsession with "kinetic operations" by US Special Forces, Petraeus literally wrote the book - namely, The US Army/Marine Corps Counter-insurgency Field Manual.
If the COIN cult has a guru (whom all obey unquestioningly), it's Petraeus. The aura that surrounds him, especially among the chattering classes of the Washington punditocracy, is palpable, and he has a vast well of support among Republicans and assorted right-wingers on Capitol Hill, including the Holy Trinity: John McCain, Lindsay Graham and Joe Lieberman.
Not surprisingly, there have been frequent mentions of Petraeus as a candidate for the GOP nomination for president in 2012, although Obama's deft selection of Petraeus seems, once and for all, to have ruled out that option, since the general will be very busy on the other side of the globe for quite a while.
Even before the announcement that Petraeus had the job, the right's mighty Wurlitzer had begun to blast out its critique of the supposedly pernicious effects of the July deadline. The Heritage Foundation, in an official statement, proclaimed: "The artificial Afghanistan withdrawal deadline has obviously caused some of our military leaders to question our strategy in Afghanistan ... We don't need an artificial timeline for withdrawal. We need a strategy for victory."
Writing in the Washington Post on June 24, Henry Kissinger cleared his throat and harrumphed: "The central premise [of Obama's strategy] is that, at some early point, the United States will be able to turn over security responsibilities to an Afghan government and national army whose writ is running across the entire country. This turnover is to begin next summer. Neither the premise nor the deadline is realistic ... Artificial deadlines should be abandoned."
And the Post itself, in the latest of a long-running series of post-9/11[ inside job wall to wall...] hawkish editorials, gave Obama his marching orders: "He ... should clarify what his July 2011 deadline means. Is it the moment when 'you are going to see a whole lot of people moving out', as Vice President Biden has said, or ‘the point at which a process begins ... at a rate to be determined by conditions at the time', as General Petraeus testified? We hope that the appointment of General Petraeus means the president's acceptance of the general's standard."
Is the COIN cult ascendant?
It's too early to say whether Obama's decision to name Petraeus to replace his protege McChrystal carries any real significance when it comes to the evolution of his Afghan war policy. The McChrystal crisis erupted so quickly that Obama had no time to carefully consider who might replace him and Petraeus undoubtedly seemed like the obvious choice, if the point was to minimize the domestic political risks involved.
Still, it's worrying. Petraeus' COIN policy logically demands a decade-long war, involving labor-intensive (and military-centric) nation-building, waged village by village and valley by valley, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and countless US, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and Afghan casualties, including civilians.
That doesn't in the least square with the idea that significant numbers of troops will start leaving Afghanistan next summer. Indeed, Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer with long experience in the Middle East and South Asia, who headed Obama's first Afghan policy review in February 2009, told me (for an article in Rolling Stone last month) that it's not inconceivable the military will ask for even more troops, not agree to fewer, next year.
The Post is right, however, that Obama needs to grapple seriously with the deep divisions in his administration. Having ousted one rebellious general, the president now has little choice but to confront - or cave in to - the entire COIN cult, including its guru.
If Obama decides to take them on, he'll have the support of many traditionalists in the US armed forces who reject the cult's preaching. Above all, his key ally is bound to be those pesky facts on the ground.
Afghanistan is the place where theories of warfare go to die, and if the COIN theory isn't dead yet, it's utterly failed so far to prove itself. The vaunted February offensive into the dusty hamlet of Marjah in Helmand province has unraveled. The offensive into Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban and a seething tangle of tribal and religious factions, once touted as the potential turning point of the entire war, has been postponed indefinitely. After nine years, the Pentagon has little to show for its efforts, except ever-rising casualties and money spent.
Perhaps Obama is still counting on US soldiers to reverse the Taliban's momentum and win the war, even though administration officials have repeatedly rejected the notion that Afghanistan can be won militarily. Petraeus or not, the reality is that the war will end with a political settlement involving President Hamid Karzai's government, various Afghan warlords and powerbrokers, the remnants of the old Northern Alliance, the Taliban and the Taliban's sponsors in Pakistan.
Making all that work and winning the support of Afghanistan's neighbors - including India, Iran and Russia - will be exceedingly hard. If Obama's diplomats managed to pull it off, the Afghanistan that America left behind might be modestly stable. On the other hand, it won't be pretty to look at it. It will be a decentralized mess, an uneasy balance between enlightened Afghans and benighted, Islamic fundamentalist ones, and no doubt many future political disagreements will be settled not in conference rooms but in gun battles. Three things it won't be: it won't be Switzerland. It won't be a base for al-CIAda.... And it won't be host to tens of thousands of US and NATO troops.
The only silver lining in the Petraeus cloud is that the general has close ties to the military in Pakistan who slyly accept US aid while funneling support to the insurgency in Afghanistan. If Obama decides to pursue a political and diplomatic solution between now and next July, Petraeus' Pakistan connection would be useful indeed. Time, however, is running out....
The debacle over General Stanley McChrystal dramatizes how military thinking dominates United States policy - look at how much of the budget the Pentagon commands - as well as the utter hopelessness of achieving anything but draining defeat from the US occupation of Afghanistan. This lesson should have been learned after Vietnam. As Yogi Berra said, it's "deja vu all over again”.
Washington handpicked Hamid Karzai to become president of Afghanistan. After serving one term, beloved by few of his fellow citizens, Karzai publicly proclaimed a lack of confidence in the ability of his US benefactors to prevail against the enigmatic Taliban. He told the media he no longer trusted the US commitment - its ability to win the war and its staying power. Indeed, he has begun to talk - perhaps even negotiate - with the very entity against which the US military has engaged for a decade, suffering more than 1,000 dead and many more wounded, both physically and mentally.
Simultaneously, to cover his bets, Karzai pretends he is grateful for Washington's generous assistance. Shocking? Never happened to us before? Hit Google and you'll find our Vietnamese Karzai.
The Vietnam parallel
In the 1950s, the Geneva Accords called for a vote for president in Vietnam. Even US president Dwight Eisenhower, in his memoirs, conceded that communist leader Ho Chi Minh would have won that election with more than 80% of the vote. To avoid this result, the United States and some allies created the Republic of South Vietnam and chose Ngo Din Diem as president. Among Diem's promoters were defense intellectuals, the neoconservatives of their day, as well as Cardinal Spellman and the Kennedy family.
Diem, a Catholic president of a newly created Buddhist country, knew that he must watch his generals - mainly non-Catholics - very carefully. As US military advisers pushed the Vietnamese military to fight aggressively against the Vietcong, the communist guerrillas in the South, Diem urged the generals to keep casualties limited - meaning no aggressive campaigns.
In early November 1963, just before John F Kennedy's assassination, some Vietnamese generals staged a coup against Diem - with tacit US approval, if not downright encouragement - and assassinated him. Diem's killers became heads of state, backed immediately by Washington. His widow, Madame Nhu, blamed the US government for the assassination: "Whoever has the Americans as allies does not need enemies."
Karzai's Diem moment
Did Karzai read Madame Nhu's statement? After serving a first term that gave corruption a bad name, Karzai won a second term in 2009. Like Diem, whose family received key power posts, Karzai protects his own. His brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, has been alleged to be connected to one of the biggest narco-trafficking operations in the country. In addition, according to The New York Times, Ahmed Karzai receives "regular payments from the Central Intelligence Agency, and has for much of the past eight years, according to current and former American officials".
The Times also reported, "The agency pays Mr Karzai for a variety of services, including helping to recruit an Afghan paramilitary force that operates at the CIA's direction in and around the southern city of Kandahar, Mr Karzai's home."
Karzai alternatively criticizes and praises the US government (which spends US$6.3 billion monthly to keep the war going). He also provokes Washington by embracing the supreme object of Washington's current hate campaign, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
During the Vietnam War, some US corporations made out like proverbial bandits by supplying the armed forces. In Afghanistan, the BP and Halliburton empires have made billions providing for the needs of NATO forces. Some Taliban groups also understand the profitable byproducts of war and collect bribes for not assaulting convoys carrying materiel to the military from Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the best-laid plans of President Barack Obama's generals have fallen short of their goals. McChrystal's much-trumpeted surge did not win the battles for Marjah. Nor does the re-conquest of Kandahar seem in the cards. The NATO allies have grown weary. The Dutch have deserted, and even the toady right-wing Canadian government will depart in 14 months. Indeed, US forces are also due to withdraw in 2011.
In 1975, congress cut off funds for US support for the Vietnam War. Those who voted for the cut asked the obvious question. What had the United States achieved after a decade of fighting and killing that left 58,000 US dead, hundreds of thousands wounded, four million Vietnamese casualties, and a land destroyed? Many now ask that same question about Afghanistan and come up with the same answer: Not much.
The US public shows signs of war-weariness, even though most haven't been touched directly by the conflict. They have become tired of hearing and reading about it. Millions of Americans sing "God Bless America" at sporting events, honoring those who serve in the military. Most of those people don't volunteer or even write letters to the troops.
And still the war drags on. The elusive Taliban - accused of being in bed with Pakistani intelligence and apparently also on the couch with Karzai - have learned, like the Vietcong of old, to vanish as American troops approach. They elude the heralded "decisive battle". The old Afghan saying rings loud: "Foreign invaders may have the clock but we have time." The Vietnamese had similar sayings.
The United States was born in an anti-imperial war. We have had little success exporting our order to developing nations (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan). But we do suffer long-term negative effects from those bloody adventures. Some Americans remain permanently scarred and crippled; others never forgive or forget. The Vietnamese won and now love doing business with us. But here the analogy with Vietnam breaks down. The Iraqis and Afghanis (and many in Pakistan as well) will not claim victory. Rather, they - the families of those killed by US troops, bombs, and drones - will likely cultivate hatred for the United States for decades to come....
What may be a closer truth is that the US adventure in Afghanistan is inherently doomed and its elements, in consequence, cannot but cumulatively contribute to its failure. Put another way, Can one pursue a doomed purpose in successful stages? Well, yes, the troops can act successfully, also the supply lines and much of what happens day to day. But even these must ultimately be attached to the overall purpose since they are links, however small, to its achievement and that, by definition, is not attainable. If one stands far enough back from the whole Afghan thing one cannot fail to see that the objectives defined by Obama cannot be achieved. Quite apart from anything else, Al CIAda is no longer even in Afghanistan...., CIA/MOSSAD have shifted its false flag operations elsewhere....
The journey from the point when Obama adopted military advice and set his policy in motion to the moment when the objectives will be recognized as unattainable is progressive. Processes that are progressive start here, end there and are marked by various events like musical notation. An over enthusiastic admirer once said to a renowned composer (maybe Debussy): I cannot imagine how you manage to write so many notes. Madam, he replied, music is not the notes, it is the spaces in between. This entire Afghan undertaking is such a time/space progression between one moment of decision and its failure, and McChrystal is but one of the notes along the way....