Don't Let the McChrystal Frenzy Obscure the Dirty Truth About Afghanistan
It should come as no surprise that General Stanley McChrystal’s return to Washington to explain a series of derogatory comments he and his staff made about the White House has ignited a media frenzy.
The story has everything a reporter could want -- tension within the administration, a very public clash between civilian and military leaders over just what we might hope to accomplish in Afghanistan, and even some echoes of Truman's historic clash with General George MacArthur during the Korean conflict.
But the story by Rolling Stone reporter Matt Hastings also reveals just how narrow the discourse about our Afghanistan adventure really is. Because while we’ll be treated to tens of thousands of column inches and hours of cable news blather about McChrystal’s “insubordination,” or whether Obama looks “tough enough” in handling the situation, the most important part of Hastings’ article is largely being ignored by the corporate media.
Hastings told a tale of a project with no hope for success. His story shows us that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is all about tactics dressed up as a strategy. It’s a profile of a military establishment running on inertia -- unable to withdraw because withdrawing is an admission of defeat, but also unable to accomplish the wholly unrealistic tasks put before it.
This is perhaps the most revealing passage from Hastings’ report:
"[Team Obama] are trying to manipulate perceptions because there is no definition of victory – because victory is not even defined or recognizable," says Celeste Ward, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation who served as a political adviser to U.S. commanders in Iraq in 2006. "That's the game we're in right now. What we need, for strategic purposes, is to create the perception that we didn't get run off. The facts on the ground are not great, and are not going to become great in the near future."
But facts on the ground, as history has proven, offer little deterrent to a military determined to stay the course. Even those closest to McChrystal know that the rising anti-war sentiment at home doesn't begin to reflect how deeply fucked up things are in Afghanistan. "If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular," a senior adviser to McChrystal says. Such realism, however, doesn't prevent advocates of counterinsurgency from dreaming big: Instead of beginning to withdraw troops next year, as Obama promised, the military hopes to ramp up its counterinsurgency campaign even further. "There's a possibility we could ask for another surge of U.S. forces next summer if we see success here," a senior military official in Kabul tells me.
Again, counterinsurgency is a matter of tactics. The strategy, we have been told for almost a decade, is to defeat the remnants of the Taliban and create a functional, legitimate state in a country where one has never before existed. It was a “state-building” project that was supposed to enhance our security by fostering the kind of stability and economic progress that would supposedly make Islamic extremism unappealing to the masses.
But as the New York Times reported earlier this month, the leader of that government, Hamid Karzai, has “lost faith in the Americans and NATO to prevail in Afghanistan.” An adviser told the Times that Karzai has no “confidence in the capability of either the coalition or his own government to protect this country,” and for that reason he has been “pressing to strike his own deal with the Taliban and the country’s archrival, Pakistan, the Taliban’s longtime supporter.”