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Victory at Last! Monty Python in Afghanistan

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Cross-posted with Tomdispatch.com.

Let others deal with the details of President Obama’s Afghan speech, with the on-ramps and off-ramps, those 30,000 U.S. troops going in and just where they will be deployed, the benchmarks for what’s called “good governance” in Afghanistan, the corruption of the Karzai regime, the viability of counterinsurgency warfare, the reliability of NATO allies, and so on.  Let’s just skip to the most essential point which, in a nutshell, is this:  Victory at Last!

It’s been a long time coming, but finally American war commanders have effectively marshaled their forces, netcentrically outmaneuvering and outflanking the enemy.  They have shocked-and-awed their opponents, won the necessary hearts-and-minds, and so, for the first time in at least two decades, stand at the heights of success, triumphant at last. 

And no, I’m not talking about post-surge Iraq and certainly not about devolving Afghanistan.  I’m talking about what’s happening in Washington.


A Symbolic Surrender of Civilian Authority

You may not think so, but on Tuesday night from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, in his first prime-time presidential address to the nation, Barack Obama surrendered.  It may not have looked like that: there were no surrender documents; he wasn’t on the deck of the USS Missouri; he never bowed his head.  Still, from today on, think of him not as the commander-in-chief, but as the commanded-in-chief. 

And give credit to the victors.  Their campaign was nothing short of brilliant.  Like the policy brigands they were, they ambushed the president, held him up with their threats, brought to bear key media players and Republican honchos, and in the end made off with the loot.  The campaign began in late September with a strategic leak of Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal’s grim review of the situation in that country, including demands for sizeable troop escalations and a commitment to a counterinsurgency war.  It came to include rumors of potential retirements in protest if the president didn’t deliver, as well as clearly insubordinate policy remarks by General McChrystal, not to speak of an impressive citizen-mobilization of inside-the-Beltway former neocon or fighting liberal think-tank experts, and a helping hand from an admiring media.  In the process, the U.S. military succeeded in boxing in a president who had already locked himself into a conflict he had termed both “the right war” and a “necessary” one.  After more than two months of painfully over-reported deliberations, President Obama has now ended up essentially where General McChrystal began. 

Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine was dusted off from the moldy Vietnam archives and made spanking new by General David Petraeus in 2006, applied in Iraq (and Washington) in 2007, and put forward for Afghanistan in late 2008.  It has now been largely endorsed, and a major escalation of the war -- a new kind of military-led nation building (or, as they like to say, “good governance”) is to be cranked up and set in motion.  COIN is being billed as a “population-centric,” not “enemy-centric” approach in which U.S. troops are distinctly to be "nation-builders as well as warriors."  

And as for those 30,000 troops, most expected to arrive in the Afghan combat zone within the next six months, the numbers are even more impressive when you realize that, as late as the summer of 2008, the U.S. only had about 28,000 troops in Afghanistan.  In other words, in less than two years, U.S. troop strength in that country will have more than tripled to approximately 100,000 troops.  So we’re talking near-Vietnam-level escalation rates.  If you include the 38,000 NATO forces also there (and a possible 5,000 more to come), total allied troop strength will be significantly above what the Soviets deployed during their devastating Afghan War of the 1980s in which they fought some of the same insurgents now arrayed against us. 

Think of this as Barack Obama’s anti-MacArthur moment.  In April 1951, in the midst of the Korean War, President Harry Truman relieved Douglas MacArthur of command of American forces.  He did so because the general, a far grander public figure than either McChrystal or Centcom commander Petraeus (and with dreams of his own about a possible presidential run), had publicly disagreed with, and interfered with, Truman’s plans to “limit” the war after the Chinese intervened. 

Obama, too, has faced what Robert Dreyfuss in Rolling Stone calls a “generals’ revolt” -- amid fears that his Republican opposition would line up behind the insubordinate field commanders and make hay in the 2010 and 2012 election campaigns.  Obama, too, has faced a general, Petraeus, who might well have presidential ambitions, and who has played a far subtler game than MacArthur ever did.  After more than two months of what right-wing critics termed “dithering” and supporters called “thorough deliberations,” Obama dealt with the problem quite differently.  He essentially agreed to subordinate himself to the publicly stated wishes of his field commanders.  (Not that his Republican critics will give him much credit for doing so, of course.)  This is called “politics” in our country and, for a Democratic president in our era, Tuesday night’s end result was remarkably predictable.   

When Obama bowed to the Japanese emperor on his recent Asian tour, there was a media uproar in this country.  Even though the speech Tuesday night should be thought of as bowing to the American military, there is likely to be little complaint on that score.  Similarly, despite the significance of symbolism in Washington, there has been surprisingly little discussion about the president’s decision to address the American people not from the Oval Office, but from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.   

It was there that, in 2002, George W. Bush gave a speech before the assembled cadets in which he laid out his aggressive strategy of preventive war, which would become the cornerstone of “the Bush Doctrine.”  (“If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long -- Our security will require transforming the military you will lead -- a military that must be ready to strike at a moment's notice in any dark corner of the world. And our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.”)  But keep in mind that this was still a graduation speech and presidents have traditionally addressed one of the military academies at graduation time. 

Obama is not a man who appears in prop military jackets with “commander-in-chief” hand-stitched across his heart before hoo-aahing crowds of soldiers, as our last president loved to do, and yet in his first months in office he has increasingly appeared at military events and associated himself with things military.  This speech represents another step in that direction.  Has a president ever, in fact, given a non-graduation speech at West Point, no less a major address to the American people?  Certainly, the choice of venue, and so the decision to address a military audience first and other Americans second, not only emphasized the escalatory military path chosen in Afghanistan, but represented a kind of symbolic surrender of civilian authority. 

For his American audience, and undoubtedly his skittish NATO allies as well, the president did put a significant emphasis on an exit strategy from the war.  That off-ramp strategy was, however, placed in the context of the training of the woeful Afghan security forces to take control of the struggle themselves and the woeful government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to turn over a new nation-building leaf.  Like the choice of West Point, this, too, seemed to resonate with eerie echoes of the years in which George W. Bush regularly intoned the mantra:  “As Iraqis stand-up, we will stand down.” 

In his address, Obama offered July 2011 as the date to begin a withdrawing the first U.S. troops from Afghanistan.  (“After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”)  However, according to the Washington-insider Nelson Report, a White House “on background” press briefing Tuesday afternoon made it far clearer that the president was talking about a “conditions based withdrawal.” It would, in other words, depend “on objective conditions on the ground,” on whether the Afghans had met the necessary “benchmarks.”  When asked about the “scaling back” of the American war effort, General McChrystal recently suggested a more conservative timeline -- “sometime before 2013” -- seconded hazily by Said Jawad, the Afghan ambassador to Washington.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates refers to this as a "thinning out" of U.S. forces.

In fact, there’s no reason to put faith in any of these hazy deadlines.  After all, this is the administration that came into office announcing a firm one-year closing date for the U.S. prison in Guantanamo (now officially missed), a firm sunshine policy for an end-of-2009 release of millions of pages of historical documents from the archives of the CIA and other intelligence and military services (now officially delayed, possibly for years), and of course a firm date for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, followed by all U.S. forces from Iraq (now possibly slipping). 

Finish the job in Afghanistan?  Based on the plans of the field commanders to whom the president has bowed, on the administration’s record of escalation in the war so far, and on the quiet reassurances to the Pakistanis that we aren’t leaving Afghanistan in any imaginable future, this war looks to be all job and no finish.  Whatever the flourishes, that was the essence of Tuesday night’s surrender speech. 

Monty Python in Afghanistan

Honestly, if it weren’t so grim, despite all the upbeat benchmarks and encouraging words in the president’s speech, this would certainly qualify as Monty Python in Afghanistan.  After all, three cabinet ministers and 12 former ministers are under investigation in Afghanistan itself on corruption charges.  And that barely scratches the surface of the problems in a country that one Russian expert recently referred to as an “international drug firm,” where at least one-third of the gross national product comes from the drug trade.  In addition, as Juan Cole wrote at his Informed Comment blog:

“Months after the controversial presidential election that many Afghans consider stolen, there is no cabinet, and parliament is threatening to go on recess before confirming a new one because the president is unconstitutionally late in presenting the names. There are grave suspicions that some past and present cabinet members have engaged in the embezzlement of substantial sums of money. There is little parliamentary oversight. Almost no one bothers to attend the parliamentary sessions. The cabinet ministries are unable to spend the money allocated to them on things like education and rural development, and actually spent less in absolute terms last year than they did in the previous two years.” 

In addition, the Taliban now reportedly take a cut of the billions of dollars in U.S. development aid flowing into the country, much of which is otherwise squandered, and of the American money that goes into “protecting” the convoys that bring supplies to U.S. troops throughout the country.  One out of every four Afghan soldiers has quit or deserted the Afghan National Army in the last year, while the ill-paid, largely illiterate, hapless Afghan police with their “well-deserved reputation for stealing and extorting bribes,” not to speak of a drug abuse rate estimated at 15%, are, as its politely put, “years away from functioning independently”; and the insurgency is spreading to new areas of the country and reviving in others.

Good governance?  Good grief!

Not that Washington, which obviously feels that it has much to impart to the Afghan people about good governance and how to deal with corruption, has particularly firm ground to stand on.  After all, the United States has just completed its first billion-dollar presidential election in a $5 billion election season, and two administrations just propped up some of the worst financial scofflaws in the history of the world and got nothing back in return. 

Meanwhile, the money flowing into Washington political coffers from Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, the pharmaceutical and health care industries, real estate, legal firms, and the like might be thought of as a kind of drug in itself.  At the same time, according to USA Today, at least 158 retired generals and admirals, many already pulling in military pensions in the range of $100,000-$200,000, have been hired as “senior mentors” by the Pentagon “to offer advice under an unusual arrangement”:  they also work for companies seeking Defense Department contracts.  

In Congress, a Senate maneuver which only a few years ago was so rare that the response to it was nicknamed “the nuclear option” -- needing a 60-vote majority to pass anything of significance -- has, almost without comment, become a commonplace for the passage of just about anything.  This means Congress is eternally in a state of gridlock.  And that’s just for starters when it comes to ways in which the U.S. government, so ready to surge its military and its civilian employees into Afghanistan in the name of good governance, is in need of repair, if not nation-building itself.   

Airless in Washington

It’s nonetheless the wisdom of this Washington and of this military that Obama has not found wanting, at least when it comes to Afghanistan.

So here’s a question:  Why did he listen to them?  And under such circumstances, why should we take the results seriously?

Stop for a moment and consider the cast of characters who offered the president the full range of advice available in Washington -- all of which, as far as we can tell, from Joe Biden’s “counterterrorism-plus” strategy to McChrystal’s COIN and beyond, was escalatory in nature.  These are, of course, the wise men (and woman) of our era.  But just a cursory glance at their collective record should at least make you wonder:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now said to be the official with the best ties to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and so the one in charge of “coaxing” him into a round of reasonable nation-building, of making “a new compact" with the Afghan people by “improving governance and cracking down on corruption”; and yet, in the early 1990s, in her single significant nation-building experience at home, she botched the possibility of getting a universal health-care bill through Congress.  She also had the “wisdom” to vote in 2003 to authorize the invasion of Iraq.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, reputedly deeply trusted by the president and in charge of planning out our military future in Afghanistan, was in the 1980s a supposed expert on the Soviet Union as well as deputy CIA director and later deputy to National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft.  Yet, in those years, he couldn’t bring himself to believe that the Soviets were done for even as that empire was disappearing from the face of the Earth.  In the words of former National Security Council official Roger Morris, Gates “waged a final battle against the Soviets, denying at every turn that the old enemy was actually dying.”  As former CIA official Melvin Goodman has put the matter:  “Gates was wrong about every key intelligence question of the 1980s... A Kremlinologist by training, Gates was one of the last American hardliners to comprehend the changes taking place in the Soviet Union. He was wrong about Mikhail Gorbachev, wrong about the importance of reform, wrong about Moscow's pursuit of arms control and détente with the United States.  He was wrong about the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan...”

Vice-President Joe Biden, recently described as potentially “the second-most-powerful vice president in history” as well as “the president’s all-purpose adviser and sage” on foreign policy, was during the Bush years a believer in nation-building in Afghanistan, voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, and later promoted the idea -- like Caesar re:  Gaul -- of dividing that country into three parts (without, of course, bothering to ask the Iraqis), while leaving 25,000-30,000 American troops based there in perpetuity, while “these regions build up their state police forces.” 

General Stanley McChrystal, our war commander in Afghanistan and now the poster boy for counterinsurgency warfare, had his skills honed purely in the field of counterterrorism.  He was a Special Ops guy.  The man who is now to “protect” the Afghan people previously won his spurs as the head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He ran the “manhunters” – essentially, that is, he was the leader of a team of assassins and evidently part of what reporter Seymour Hersh has termed an "executive assassination wing" of that command, possibly taking orders directly from Vice President Dick Cheney.  His skills involved guns to the head, not protective boots on the ground.  

General David Petraeus, the general leading everything, who has been practically deified in the U.S. media, is perhaps the savviest and most accomplished of this crew.  He surged into Iraq in 2007 and, with the help of fortuitous indigenous developments, staunched the worst of the bleeding, leaving behind a big question mark. His greatest skill, however, has been in fostering the career of David Petraeus.  He is undoubtedly an advisor with an agenda and in his wake come a whole crew of military and think-tank experts, with almost unblemished records of being wrong in the Bush years, whom the surge in Iraq recredentialized.   

Karl Eikenberry, our ambassador to Kabul, in his previous career in the U.S. military served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, and as the commander of Combined Forces Command Afghanistan was the general responsible for building up the Afghan army and “reforming” that country’s police force.  On both counts, we know how effective that attempt proved. 

And when it comes to key figures with well-padded Washington CVs like Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or James Jones, present national security advisor and former commandant of the Marine Corps, as well as the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, a close friend of Senator John McCain, and a former revolving-door board member of Chevron and Boeing, remind me just what sticks in your mind about their accomplishments? 

So, when you think about Barack Obama’s Afghan decisions, imagine first that the man considered the smartest, most thoughtful president of our era chose to surround himself with these people.  He chose, that is, not fresh air, or fresh thought in the field of foreign and war policy, but the airless precincts where the combined wisdom of Washington and the Pentagon now exists, and the remarkable lack of accomplishment that goes with it.  In short, these are people whose credentials largely consist of not having been right about much over the years. 

Admittedly, this administration has called in practically every Afghan expert in sight.  Everyone involved could now undoubtedly expound on relatively abstruse questions of Afghan tribal politics, locate Paktia Province on a map in a flash, and tell you just which of Hamid Karzai’s ministers are under investigation for corruption. 

Unfortunately, the most essential problem isn’t in Afghanistan; it’s here in the United States, in Washington, where knowledge is slim, egos large, and national security wisdom is deeply imprinted on a system bleeding money and breaking down.  The president campaigned on the slogan, “Change we can believe in.”  He then chose as advisors -- in the economic sphere as well, where a similar record of gross error, narrow and unimaginative thinking, and over-identification with the powerful could easily be compiled -- a crew who had never seen a significant change, or an out-of-the-ordinary thought it could live with -- and still can’t. 

As a result, the Iraq War has yet to begin to go away, the Afghan War is being escalated in a major way, the Middle East is in some turmoil, Guantanamo remains open, black sites are still operating in Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s budget has grown yet larger, and supplemental demands on Congress for yet more money to pay for George W. Bush’s wars will, despite promises otherwise, soon enough be made

A stale crew breathing stale air has ensured that Afghanistan, the first of Bush’s disastrous wars, is now truly Obama’s War; and the news came directly from West Point where the president surrendered to his militarized fate. 

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.

[Note on Further Reading:  In preparing posts like this one, I rely on various newspapers, magazines, and websites (not all of which I see eye-to-eye with) for help, analysis, and information.  I wanted to mention just three here without which most of my dispatches would be far harder to write.  I’ve mentioned them many times before, but credit, when due, is worth repeating endlessly:  I find Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog always lucid, intelligent, and deeply informed.  It’s simply a daily must-stop for those keeping up on events in “the greater Middle East”; so is Antiwar.com, which collects more war-related information of value than any site I know, and Paul Woodward’s the War in Context, which has an eye for the telling piece and the sharp comment.] 

Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt