McChrystal Drama is Sideshow;
Can Obama define a realistic Goal?

The Daily Telegraph in the UK talked to a senior congressional figure late Tuesday or very early Wednesday ET, who said that Gen. Stanley McChrystal had submitted his resignation in advance of Wednesday’s meeting at the White House between him and President Barack Obama. The step was prompted by a revealing profile in Rolling Stone magazine, now available on the web, in which McChrystal and members of his circle displayed open contempt for other Obama administration officials, including the vice president.

The Capitol Hill source also said that possible successors to McChrystal were already being discussed along with ways to get a quick Senate confirmation, though a final decision had not been made. Among names being considered are Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who has been heading up the NATO effort to train Afghanistan troops, and Gen. James Mattis, the retiring head of the US Joint Forces Command. (Spencer Ackerman asked Mattis about the rumors and his office replied that he serves at the pleasure of the president, which I take it to mean he is interested.)

Adding to the sense of McChrystal’s career possibly crashing and burning is the report from Matthew Green of the Financial Times in Marjah [scroll down] that US special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Ambassador in Kabul Karl Eikenberry visited Marjah on Monday and met with local elders to the sound of small arms fire in the background. (H/t to Michael Pollack for the link and his comments). Then as Holbrooke and Eikenberry were leaving the meeting site, a bomb went off, which apparently had been intended for them on the part of three suicide bombers but detonated prematurely at a local shop. The purpose of the visit was for Holbrooke to assess how well McChrystal’s counter-insurgency doctrine was going in Marjah. The local elders said that the Marines had improved security in some areas but not others. One said he had had to travel to the meeting secretly for fear of Taliban reprisals.

When the US special envoy and ambassador can’t visit a place in a country without hearing small arms fire or risking being a bombing target, I’d say security is not good there.

On Monday and Tuesday, 14 NATO troops were killed, ten of them on Monday alone. Two of those killed Tuesday were American troops. So far in June, 69 NATO troops have been killed, 43 of them American.

The French have taken killed and wounded in June, and have lost over 40 troops in the Afghanistan War since 2001. One of the reasons McChrystal should go is that the Rolling Stone article shows him being distinctly ungracious to the French, whom he is attempting to convince to remain in force in Afghanistan against their better instincts. One of his circle made a comment about his going to dinner with a French minister in Paris, saying it was effing “gay.” Tell that to the French families who lost loved ones or whose sons suffered injuries fighting a war in support of the United States (the French and other NATO powers are in Afghanistan because they invoked article 5 of the NATO treaty, “an attack on one is an attack on all,” after September 11).

Obama cannot expect NATO allies to go on making these sacrifices in a distant, obscure country without obvious strategic importance for Europe and the United States. A Dutch government has already fallen over the issue, and the Canadians have announced an intention to depart.

Obama needs to define an attainable goal in Afghanistan and then execute it swiftly. As it is, when he is pressed about what in the world we are doing there, he retreats into Bushisms: “So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That’s the goal that must be achieved.”

Well that isn’t a good enough reason to be in Afghanistan. There is no al-Qaeda to speak of in Afghanistan. And although insurgents and Taliban probably control about 20 percent of the country, they have not let al-Qaeda set up shop in their territory. If they don’t now, when they obviously need all the help they can get, why would they in the future? One major guerrilla leader, Gulbadin Hikmatyar, went from expressing willingness to fight under the banner of al-Qaeda to roundly condemning the radical Arab group for having gotten the Taliban overthrown.

As for Pakistan, the US presence in Afghanistan is not necessary to partnering with Islamabad in rooting out al-Qaeda Arabs in the Pashtun tribal belt.

In other speeches, Obama has spoken about “defeating” the Taliban. But the Taliban are by now a long-standing social formation among the Pashtun ethnic group, and are a little unlikely to be wiped out by mere military means, especially the means available to a foreign military.

A congressional investigation has even thrown up good evidence that the US itself is indirectly funding the Taliban, insofar as the USG is paying warlords to provide convoy security on roads and they are using the money to bribe Taliban not to attack on their watch.

In short, we have no idea why US troops are being sent to Afghanistan at such an accelerating rate. It isn’t to fight al-Qaeda. And if it is mainly a matter of fighting the Taliban, why should we do that? They are not going to go away, and their brand of Muslim fundamentalism is by now woven deeply into the fabric of rural Pashtun life, such that for foreign Christian troops to argue the Pashtuns out of it at the point of a gun is a fool’s errand.

In fact, the Afghan parliament insisted that some 26 accused Taliban being held in Afghan prisons without sufficient evidence of wrong-doing be released instead.

Karzai is attempting to convince the United Nations to remove from the terrorism watch list many Taliban or insurgent figures, including Mulla Omar, as well as Gulbadin Hikmatyar.

In short, Karzai appears to be attempting to strike a deal with the very Taliban and insurgents that Obama says he is pledged to uproot and destroy.

How can that make sense?

No wonder McChrystal was so frustrated that he went around his line of command to the press. The real reason for this contretemps is that Obama does not have a realistic, sharply defined set of goals in Afghanistan, and he has not been good about cracking the whip and getting everyone in his administration on the same page on AfPak.

26 Responses

  1. How can Obama have a realistic goal, when the overall parameters and goals of US policy are not only unrealistically obsessed with US “interests”, very broadly defined, but are in fact never overtly stated. What exactly are we trying to achieve in any of our military adventures? To try to get at this is invariably dismissed as ‘conspiracy theorizing’, so we are left to try to make sense of overtly stated goals that are patently
    dishonest. In such an environment, realistic and clearly defined goals don’t even begin to be a possibility. To try to say why we are there and what we are trying to do, and how we are trying to do it is like trying to build a tower out of sand.

  2. In short, we have no idea why US troops are being sent to Afghanistan at such an accelerating rate. It isn’t to fight al-Qaeda. And if it is mainly a matter of fighting the Taliban, why should we do that? They are not going to go away, and their brand of Muslim fundamentalism is by now woven deeply into the fabric of rural Pashtun life, such that for foreign Christian troops to argue the Pashtuns out of it at the point of a gun is a fool’s errand.
    In short, Karzai appears to be attempting to strike a deal with the very Taliban and insurgents that Obama says he is pledged to uproot and destroy.
    How can that make sense?.

    Lithium ? it has been discovered that Afghanistan has the biggest reserve of Lithium in the world, even more than Bolivia. If we want to have our cars pulled by electricity instead of petroleum, we need powerfull batteries and those are made of lithium.

    link to nytimes.com

    The NewYork Times stated it last week-end. However, the source seems to be the Pentagon ? After all, may be that they are just looking for another argument to continue the war.

    • 50% of the world supply of Lithium is in Bolivia but the govt is run by some crazy left person and you know how we feel about those people. Well hell he might want the customer to pay for it and do a good job in the mining of the mineral. Crazy;)

  3. Thank you, Professor. The very title of your article goes to the nub. Massive sacrifices are being sustained for no clear purpose. The arguments for continuing to pursue this madness are reminiscent of those used in Korea, in Al;geria, In Vietnam by the French, in Vietnam by the US, and in Iraq.
    Political loyalties tend to be egocentric or sideways. Military loyalties should be both upward and downward. This means that good military commanders normally have to obey their political direction, or else there is confusion and anarchy. But, and it is a big but, they have to be solicitous for the well being of their men. If they consider that their men are being neglected or sacrificed for the sake of futility, they have a duty to represent the facts. This should be done clearly but discreetly, particularly to avoid any impact on morale. If the representation fails to strike any sensible reaction, they should resign but, again with morale in mind, they may have to reserve early ventilation of their reasons.

  4. Here’s a follow-up question: what would a “realistic set of goals” consist of? We can enumerate the possibilities easily enough ourselves… should any at all come to any mind.

    I’d suggest that Afghanistan represents the typical situation in which global ‘goals’ are generated post hoc to cover for a complex dynamical process that is dominated by a multitude of contending forces and incentives, themselves often quite local in scope if not in impact.

    The military — one of the actors now and no mere tool — has set up shop in Pentagonistan, a wealthy country all of its own that overlies the Afghan wretchedness, where new hardware and software is beta-tested in an endless live-fire exercise, where the officer corps gets its promotion-worthy combat cred, where McChrystal Pasha and his like inflate their theories of dominion and control, cushioned by inexhaustible billions. They don’t need goals; they have plentiful incentives to stay the course from week to week, month to month, year to year.

    Other networks of advantage, real and imagined, can surely be discerned in the worlds inhabited by each of the parties to the situation, starting with simple inertia (change itself being costly) and branching out in many directions, at many scales.

    The question, then, is what the use would be of declaring a set of goals, even ‘realistic’ ones, should they exist. Perhaps they could serve temporarily as a force in the local calculus, pushing us to get out sooner rather than later; but we shouldn’t think of the situation as one controlled by long-term goals, so that all we have to do is pick the right ones to control it.

    • “where the officer corps gets its promotion-worthy combat cred”

      Quite a valuable insight. The CIB is of immense value to the officer corps.

      As far as realistic goals go, I think the one achievable goal is keep Afghanistan from degenerating into a Somalia-like failed state. The problem is, the only realistic way to do that is to stalemate the Taliban. But that could lead to a 100 year occupation ala John McCain, and I doubt the American electorate is ready for that yet. Maybe they will be if Afghanistan ends up divided like Korea, with American troops garrisoning one part and the Taliban in control of the other. We seem to understand that kind of arrangement.

  5. - Obama does not have a realistic, sharply defined set of goals in Afghanistan –

    The problem is the original declaration of war against terror, Public Law 107-40 (AUMF).
    ‘preventing future terrorism by our enemies’ (al-Qaeda and the Taliban, as named by Pres. Bush). That war goal is unachievable. It is unmeasurable. Even so, it is law. It is still law, no matter how hard everyone ignores that fact.
    Pres. Obama 12/01/09 – ‘that authorization is still in effect.’

    Congress has the responsibility to revisit this law instead of ignoring it for oh these long 9 years of insanity. It is not totally Pres. Obama’s responsibility.

    Many people call for a return to the law. I agree totally. I point to this law as the first law we need to return to.

    Public Law 107-40, AUMF — a perfect stealth war law. The titles are innocuous, the goal is unachievable, the enemy is unnamed. If someone meant to start a forever war, this law was the perfect way to do it. I point to the number of names that have been given to this insanity as further evidence that America is lost in a fog of wars because the danger of this law, so similar in timing to the Reichstag Fire Decree, is ignored.

  6. We need to leave Afghanistan and Pakistan, now, right now, immediately. President Obama’s wars must be ended and these are Obama’s wars and not American wars since there are no declarations of war.

  7. And then there is the growing crisis brewing in Pakistan. The situation there, an openly corrupt government following the arrogant dictates of a foreign power, cannot continue. And Pakistan is a very big and very important country, which the United States seems intent on prodding and baiting until it explodes.
    Both India and China are watching anxiously (some elements no doubt, and mistakenly, in both countries see the chance of exploiting the crisis). It is beginning to occur to them that the US does not have a plan: it is simply ‘winging it.’
    Essentially the US has gone to war in Pakistan because the idea sounded good in the election campaign. All subsequent policyhas been ex post facto rationalisation.
    Empires, like fish, rot from the head.

  8. We are there for the same reasons we were in Vietnam – so the men in charge won’t be accused of weakness. Limp-dick wimps pull out. Real men surge.

  9. Link isn’t working to “A congressional investigation has even thrown up good evidence that the US itself is indirectly funding the Taliban”

  10. One of the revelations about McChrystal in the RS article has gone unmentioned elsewhere, i.e., public drunkenness.
    Think about McChrystal and his fellow leaders getting drunk in public in Paris.

    Is this the conduct of wise men? It is one thing to be a rebellious cadet at West Point, but when one has advanced to the top leadership of a USA war, such conduct is truly reprehensible.

  11. Well, McChrystal got it all in on his way out. Not enough troops, arbitrary deadline imposed by the President, Eikenberry stabbed Karzai in the back to cover his own ass, and Biden is stupid. Obama will have to give Petraeus a better hand to play. Question is: Will he get more troops or a flexible timeframe to work in? Will Obama ditch Eikenberry? Petraeus is probably stuck with Biden same as we are.

  12. “Obama needs to define an attainable goal in Afghanistan and then execute it swiftly. ”

    If it’s withdrawal, fine. Coming up with a reason to be at war, after the war has already become America’s “longest war”, is pure insanity.
    Obama’s goals are the same as Bush’s goals, and they have nothing to do with fighting “al Qaeda”. If they did, why did Bush refuse multiple offers by the Taliban to turn over Bin Laden? If they did, why is Obama ignoring his own military’s assessment that the number of “al Qaeda” fighters in Afghanistan is less than 500 people.

    “The real reason for this contretemps is that Obama does not have a realistic, sharply defined set of goals in Afghanistan”

    I disagree. The occupation is the mission. The mission is to stay and build bases, expand the military’s role in the region, and “grow the economy” for military contractors. But, clearly, that’s not a mission they can sell to the public.

  13. There’s a pattern here, every commander fired by a president for mouthing off had a last name beginning with Mc/Mac: McClellen, MacArthur, McChrystal.

  14. The problem is still there, there is no change we can believe in this and any other FWOT (link to rangeragainstwar.blogspot.com), This does cut Gen. betryust down to size and the failure can be hung around his neck, remember he spoke out last yr and Adm. M had a little set down with him and his been quiet since.
    Thanks Juan

  15. I have to admit I’m a bit confused by the Afghanistan strategy. Yesterday the President stated the reason for being in Afghanistan was to assure that al-Qaeda could not launch an attack on the US from there and as you point out in your article, the are very few of this group in Afghanistan.

    Assuming that the President isn’t lying or stupid, it seems to me that given these facts, the Biden strategy would be correct. The only explanation that I can determine is that the POTUS has been being “boxed in” by the military regarding the Afghanistan strategy and therefore his appointment of Patreaus makes good sense.

    First, he is trusted by all actors.

    Second, it takes Patreaus off the right wing lecture circuit, which has given him unusual leverage in foreign policy. Looking at Obama’s attitude with outside influence and unauthorized leaks this would be a pressing issue for him. Additionally, this is especially helpful for the fall elections.

    Finally, the appointment puts Patreaus in the hot seat with the execution of the war, where he is personally responsible for a failed strategy that he has so avidly advocated.

  16. On the abstract reductive side. How about just naming the whole area from Afghanistan to Levant, Spinozaistan, and calling the whole thing off.

  17. I just got a weird sense of deja vu:
    There was a nation a few years back that suffered a debilitating industrial accident, withdrew from Afghanistan 3 years later, and collapsed in another two years…

  18. because they invoked article 5 of the NATO treaty, “an attack on one is an attack on all,” after September 11

    That explains why Turkey re-registered the Mavi Marmama in the Comoros.

    I hate it when Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are conflated.

  19. David Bromwich: McChrystal, Obama, and Authority “Why did he give interviews to Rolling Stone? One answer is egotism. Another is more politicking. But for what? An additional hundred thousand troops? (From where?) A different president to serve? (But we have a system that takes care of that.) A simple impression of disloyalty is left by the article. Disloyalty first of all — but also a half-formed wish to be relieved of responsibility in order not to be blamed for defeat.”

    Professor Cole: “Can Obama define a realistic Goal?”

    Yes: UNWIND THE WAR ECONOMY, Juan; and do so in a patient, political savvy way… imho It’s a delicious political finesse really: Mr. Obama has given Generals Petraeus and McChrystal enough rope to hang themselves, all the troops and resources they needed to mount a ridiculous “offensive” against the rural / tribal hamlet of Marja, complete with this bizarre notion of “government in a box,” (oh, how delusional it all seems now, in retrospect). Their precious COIN runs up against reality and then they take one look at Qandahar ~ jaws drop to the floor: “But, they’re all Pashtun! and, Karzai’s corrupt brother is the Governor! What are we supposed to do?”

    So, McChrystal is OUT; Petraeus is demoted: mow he must actually comeoutof the shadows and take ownership for COIN = “maintain the lush budget of the D.O.D.” …rather like mobilizing an Army of 100’s of thousands to go into Watts, in search of an outlaw biker gang hiding out there. Petraeus my yet find a way of weasling out of this one, too ~ but right now, insofar as 2012 is concerned, General: fuggedaboutit!

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