President Obama's swift response to the McChrystal interview in Rolling Stone avoided a disaster that could have crippled his Administration. That he did not was a sign, not of his weakness but his strength. It was his ability to evaluate the challenge and quickly recover with the imaginative choice of General David Petraeus to succeed the ousted commander in the field that was so compelling and contrary to the image that has been emerged of the president in recent months.
Like all stories, there probably is another side to it that in time will emerge. The question is why did as shrewd a soldier as McChrystal choose to self-implode in an off-beat publication with an interview that he had to know would wreck his career? Was it his frustration with having too many so-called experts streaming into Afghanistan and reporting back to Washington with their own perceptions of what was happening on the ground?
Special Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a man of strong opinions and insufferable arrogance, is not the kind of a man a decorated general with an enormous ego of his own could tolerate for long. Ambassador Karl Eichenberry, the former commander of military operations in Afghanistan, made no secret of his own displeasure with the way the war was being fought. He repeatedly second-guessed McChrystal in his communiqués, both to the White House.and the State Department from where Hillary Clinton had to be heard.
All of this perhaps was compounded by the presence of too many journalists who were embedded with McChrystal's army. They were critically unable to see the downside, both of the General's personality and strategy.
Less than 24 hours before President Obama fired McChrystal, I attended a preview of a new and widely-praised documentary entitled Restrepo. The film was produced and directed by veteran journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Heatherington who won the Grand Prize at the Sundance Festival this year. They spent nearly a year, attaching themselves to a platoon of B Company, 2d Battalion of the 517th Regiment of the 187th Airborne Brigade. To digest their unit identification and to have audiences understand what an engaging and courageous number of American soldiers were was the core of the film. What made it so powerful was the interviews with individual soldiers, away from the field of combat but re-assigned later in Italy. It gave the young men an opportunity to reflect about what they had endured in their own calm words. That enriched the texture of the film. Viewers could come to appreciate the dangerous and risky nature of the mission to which the young soldiers had been assigned. But we were never told why they were sent there, and (I'm not sure) neither were the soldiers. Neither Junger or Heatherington ever questioned whether the operation was worth the life of one American, nor did we hear any such reflections of that nature out of the mouths of the soldiers. Restrepo, by the way, was the name of a medic in their platoon who was killed early during their march into the mountains.
The platoon had set up their fire base in the Korengal Valley, a mountainous part of Afghanistan whose specific location or importance was never explained. It was one of the flaws in the film. Was it in the north or the south of the country? Was it nearby Kabul or some other populous city? Adjacent to the border with Pakistan? A key staging ground for the Taliban? We were never told why the Korengal was of strategic importance to U.S. interests or why the U.S. Command decided it was worth the lives of any American soldiers. We never see the faces of the enemy or the extent of their casualties. But we are exposed to endless scenes of the platoon expending an enormous amount of firepower, supposedly at the enemy combatants. Yet, we had no way of connecting the two sides.
Of critical importance, it is clear that none of the American warriors had a grasp of the Afghan language or culture. They relied on several Afghan translators of questionable ability with no certainty that they were communicating with village elders in a dialect that enabled both sides to understand each other.
In a sense it is a commentary on the way the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been sold to the American people. We have been asked to believe all of the assumptions arrived at, first by the Bush and now the Obama Administration. But still unanswered are questions most of the press did not and still do not seem to ask. Why, for instance, after all these years, deploying thousands of soldiers and committing enormous air and fire power, are we or the Pakistanis unable to break al Qaeda? Why have we failed to capture or kill Osama bin Laden? What is the specific relationship between al Qaeda and the Taliban? Are we mistakenly linking a terrorist organization with a home-grown insurgency that is involved in a civil war with the ruling government? If it is a civil war then why are we choosing sides? What is the basis for believing, as Bush and now Obama seem to believe that the principles of democracy are applicable in a society where tribalism, corruption and mistrust have prevailed for generations?
In 1968, during the Tet Offensive in the midst of the Vietnam War, I met with Walter Cronkite in Saigon. As one of the senior CBS News reporters, he asked me how were "we" going to win the war.
In an effort to modernize and democratize South Vietnam, the United States flooded the country with experts and programs that could have sunk the country altogether.
Based on my own long experience in Vietnam, I told Cronkite the war would never end until we were gone and the two sides, north and south, decided the outcome between themselves by blood or diplomacy. I was proved right then, and I believe it would be true today.
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