Don't Let the McChrystal Frenzy Obscure the Dirty Truth About Afghanistan
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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.”
Anan Gobal noted that in 2008, after seven years of fighting, less than a third of the country was under the control of the central government in Kabul, and added: “Many say even that is now an optimistic assessment.” Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that the Pentagon was making cash payments to Afghan warlords. According to Bloomberg, “Contractors told congressional investigators they believe that, in turn, the ‘warlords make protection payments to insurgents’ who are fighting the U.S.”
Our tax dollars are actually financing those trying to kill U.S. troops.
According to a report released in January, the U.S.-backed government is also awash in corruption, which Afghans now view “as a bigger concern than security and unemployment.” The government we’re backing may be extracting as much as one quarter of Afghanistan’s gross national product in bribes. And Karzai’s own brother has been implicated in Afghanistan’s rich drug trade.
Hastings’ report also paints a picture of a White House that despite its grand promises of change continues to fight George W. Bush’s war much the same way as he waged it for seven years. He noted how similarly divorced from reality the rhetoric coming from this White House has been to that of the Bushies:
"There is no denying the progress that the Afghan people have made in recent years – in education, in health care and economic development," the president says. "As I saw in the lights across Kabul when I landed – lights that would not have been visible just a few years earlier."
It is a disconcerting observation for Obama to make. During the worst years in Iraq, when the Bush administration had no real progress to point to, officials used to offer up the exact same evidence of success. "It was one of our first impressions," one GOP official said in 2006, after landing in Baghdad at the height of the sectarian violence. "So many lights shining brightly." So it is to the language of the Iraq War that the Obama administration has turned – talk of progress, of city lights, of metrics like health care and education. Rhetoric that just a few years ago they would have mocked.
The conflict in Afghanistan is now the longest one the United States has ever fought. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, at a cost of hundreds of billions of U.S. tax dollars. That there are electric lights in Kabul is as pathetic a “milestone for success” as one could imagine, and Obama’s focus on how sparkly the approach to Kabul’s airport is offers evidence of the same obstinate dismissal of reality that was so maddeningly common in the Bush White House.
Ultimately, what the Rolling Stone story tells us is that even those tasked with carrying out Obama’s Afghanistan policy know it’s an exercise in futility. McChrystal and his aides are protecting his legacy against history’s harsh judgment of what will prove an incoherent policy from its inception.
Max Bergmann of the Center for American Progress didn’t miss what lies at the heart of the Rolling Stone report. “The significance of this food fight is not in what was said,” he wrote, “but in what it says about where the United States is in Afghanistan":
What has become apparent is that … the mythic status now given to the surge in Iraq led to a significant degree of over-confidence on the part of McChrystal and others about their ability to turn the Afghan war around after it had utterly deteriorated year after year under the neglectful watch of the Bush administration.
The McChrystal incident provides some titillating political news for the pundits to chew on for a few days. But it also tells us a lot about the state of affairs in Afghanistan, and the picture is not pretty. That, rather than some quotes from McChrystal’s anonymous staffers, should be the Big Story this week.