The right' war gone wrong

Print edition : July 30, 2010

Barack Obama with David Petraeus in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, on June 23.-LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS

Obama replaces Stanley McChrystal, for saying the Afghan war is essentially unwinnable, with David Patreaus, whose surge policy he had opposed in 2007.

BY the end of May, the United States taxpayer had spent a trillion dollars on the country's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Afghan war has been going on for nine years, the longest military involvement for the U.S. armed forces. It has claimed the lives of 3,000 U.S. troops, a large number of other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces and an untold number of Afghan and Pakistani civilians. The Iraq war too remains bloody, although the casualties are now of Iraqis mainly. The political reality in both Iraq and Afghanistan is messy. Elections in Iraq produced a hung parliament with advantage to no faction. Such a circumstance gives the U.S. more impetus to remain on hand; an enfeebled Iraqi political system cannot ensure its swift departure. In Afghanistan, the political condition is worse. The President governs from his palace with the support of a handful of tribal leaders, and with his writ extended thanks only to the American generals. A political elite that is subservient takes shelter in corruption and fattens its overseas bank accounts in anticipation of the deluge that will overrun Kabul soon enough. President Barack Obama's wars bring comfort to none. No promise of withdrawal seems easy to meet.

The generals do not like to lose wars. The political commissars handed them two that are unwinnable, or which do not have a clear prospect of victory. Bush had not clearly defined victory. Nor has Obama. But Obama is cannier. He seems to believe that U.S. hegemony cannot be achieved through the gun alone. In that case, wars that are unpopular and that bleed the exchequer need to be brought to an end, not because of the suffering they bring, but because they incapacitate the U.S. to extend its authority over planetary affairs. This is the crucial difference between the strategies of Bush and Obama.

In 2008, presidential candidate Obama visited the Baghdad headquarters of the multinational force in Iraq. Its head, General David Petraeus, offered the candidate, and Senator Joe Biden, a long-winded power-point presentation that amounted to little more than good cheer for the U.S. operations. Obama and Petraeus got into an argument, as the politician wanted to question the sanguine general. Obama had opposed Petraeus' surge policy in 2007, and he announced that if elected he would remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2012. Petraeus' surge had given the U.S. breathing room, and the general was uneasy with any idea of a timetable for withdrawal. He wanted to ensure stability. Petraeus had taken time off from his military career to write a doctoral thesis at Princeton on The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam. A precipitous withdrawal would undermine U.S. power, he argued. The generals wanted to fight to ensure the honour of the U.S. fighting machine. Obama saw that these wars had the capacity to undermine U.S. power. Their interests were at variance. The 2008 meeting was not propitious.

Three elements to handle Iraq

Petraeus' surge had three elements. The first was to buy off the insurgents in the Sunni triangle with bagfuls of American dollars. They were happy for the money and many turned on the hardened fighters of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Their new organisations came under the Sunni awakening. The second element was to send in small bands of special operations troops to track down and kill the insurgents such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and unreconstructed Baathists. General Stanley McChrystal headed the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command, which journalist Seymour Hersh called an executive assassination wing. It took charge of the second part of the surge. The third part of the surge became COIN, the counter-insurgency doctrine. The military, in this third leg, becomes an armed non-governmental organisation protecting population centres and providing basic services (education, health care, irrigation, and so on). It was the combination of these three that reduced the level of violence in Iraq. Bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military and its political leadership hastily declared the surge a victory. It was a major boost to the U.S. morale and its armed forces. David Petraeus' reputation was entirely made in that moment.

STANLEY A. MCCHRYSTAL on board a C-130 aircraft over Afghanistan.-HANDOUT/AP

After Obama won the presidency, he inaugurated a major review of the U.S.' policy in Afghanistan. He had run against the Iraq war and had promised to withdraw the U.S. forces from there within a few years. By the time of his presidency, in 2009, the surge had created the space to consider such an option. Petraeus had left Iraq by then and taken overall command of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (as head of the Central Command, or CENTCOM). Iraq was the wrong war, Obama had said, and it was time to get out of that morass. The right war, for Obama, was Afghanistan. It was where Al Qaeda ran its operations, and it needed to be tended. Not many in the review called for a drawdown in Afghanistan. Some, such as Vice-President Joe Biden, called for the war to be prosecuted with a soft footprint; drone attacks on known Al Qaeda targets would be accompanied by special operation assaults on the ground. Others, such as Petraeus and McChrystal, now running the war operations in Afghanistan, believed in some kind of modified surge, with an increase in troops. The debate within the White House and with the military was fierce. McChrystal had strong views. His own review was leaked to the press. He wanted more troops, or else he predicted failure. When the Obama team cautioned against these leaks, McChrystal spoke out in an address in London, warning that the Biden approach would lead to Chaos-istan. Obama rebuked McChrystal publicly.

Different terrain & targets

The White House adopted a strategy that borrowed from each of the protagonists. Biden got his way: there have been more drone attacks, even though these are on Pakistani soil. So did the generals. Obama authorised more troops to Afghanistan, to increase the U.S. footprint. McChrystal's shenanigans paid off. The surge, however, could not be mimicked: Iraq is not Afghanistan. It is not so easy to buy off Afghan tribal leaders and isolate the Taliban; the Taliban are not foreign fighters, or those with allegiances that are not indigenous. Nor has it been easy to send the special forces to assassinate the bad guys. It is not clear who these might be. The drone attacks showed McChrystal the downside of what he calls insurgent math: for every civilian killed, you create 10 enemies. Better to scale back on the drone attacks and on the use of assassinations that might go awry. This reticence came from the man who ran the executive assassination wing. He knew what he was talking about. The only part of the surge that could be imported was the COIN doctrine, to attempt to do state building from the barrel of a muzzled gun. The Marjah campaign might have been a public relations success, but it was a strategic failure. It showed the military leadership that the Taliban cannot be rooted out so easily. In some areas, to get rid of the Taliban through U.S. military force might require genocide. It is not a strategy the battlefield commanders relish.

The mess festers. NATO allies silently withdraw their handful of troops (when they do not withdraw, as in the Netherlands, governments fall). The U.S. remains disdainful of approaches from regional organisations, such as the Shanghai Cooperative Organisation, and from neighbouring governments. Without cooperation among the regional powers, it is likely that they will operate at cross purposes (India and Pakistan, for instance, have developed foreign policy objectives for Afghanistan that put them on a collision course). The Kabul elite shudders at the thought of a U.S. withdrawal, and hastens to fatten up its own offshore bank accounts. Stories of dollars stashed in suitcases being carried out of Kabul airport angered U.S. lawmakers, who froze the Obama administration's disbursement of $3.9 billion in foreign aid to Afghanistan. A sense of Chaosistan is available in the report from the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs (Committee on Oversight and Government Reform), Warlord, Inc. Extortion and Corruption Along the U. S. Supply Chain in Afghanistan (June 2010). It reads like a mystery novel.

No one among the war planners was optimistic. In January 2010, a cable written by U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry appeared in The New York Times. We will become more deeply engaged here with no way to extricate ourselves, the Ambassador wrote, short of allowing the country to descend again into lawlessness and chaos. Eikenberry also bemoaned the reliance on Afghan President Hamid Karzai, not an adequate strategic partner. Not long after, McChrystal briefed NATO and the International Security Assistance Force, telling them that the war was essentially unwinnable. McChrystal's Chief of Operations, Major General William Mayville, had an equally bleak picture of the conflict, and its end, It's not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win. This is going to end in an argument. It was the opposite of the Obama message. It is in this context that McChrystal welcomed the Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings to follow him around. Hastings' remarkable story, The Runaway General (July 2010), portrayed McChrystal as a straight-shooting military man with disrespect for his civilian superiors. One of McChrystal's senior advisers tells Hastings, If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular. Victory is not on the horizon.

From politics to war

McChrystal was cashiered for the insubordination, mainly the disrespectful way in which he spoke of the civilian leadership. But what really irked the Obama team was McChrystal's despondency about the war (this is the opinion of Jonathan Owen and Brian Brady, The Last Post: McChrystal's bleak outlook, The Independent, June 27). The war, for McChrystal, could not be won on the battlefield. The political process had to be renewed in earnest. It is towards this end that McChrystal deepened his ties to Karzai, who seemed to provide the only political avenue in Afghanistan. Not much can be expected of Karzai and his administration, but it is what is on offer. The U.S. political brass is less confident; it has lost faith in Karzai, but sees little other alternative.

Obama replaced McChrystal with David Petraeus, who sat before the U.S. Congress and promised to prosecute the war with more force. To ally the insurgent math, McChrystal had authorised his troops to fire with discrimination. The politics had to lead the barrel of the gun. Petraeus believes that the war can work militarily, and that politics follow it. To regain the military initiative, Petraeus told Congress that he wanted to take the handcuffs off the troops. Those on the ground must have all the support they need when they are in a tough situation, he said. I mention this because I am keenly aware of concerns by some of our troopers on the ground about the application of our rules of engagement and the tactical directive. In other words, the safety catch will be removed off the guns and the troops will be able to fire with less reticence. Asked about the withdrawal date of July 2011 (raised by Biden), Petraeus sidestepped, saying there was no such date on the table.

Obama's initial wariness to let military force go ahead of politics has now withered. His choice of Petraeus is a sign of defeat for that liberal approach. There is even a suggestion that the already weak and underfunded political team (the Ambassador to Afghanistan Eikenberry and the Af-Pak tsar Richard Holbrooke) will be replaced to suit Petraeus' taste. A more muscular political team might replicate what he had in Iraq, with Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Crocker is a career diplomat, fluent in Persian and Arabic, with his own reputation for straight talk (he wrote a 2002 memo warning about chaos if Saddam Hussein's regime were toppled, and told Congress in 2007 that Iraq would remain a traumatised society). Eikenberry had already run the military side of things in Afghanistan and knows full well its limitations. Crocker is much keener for the military side. It is this side that seems to be ascendant.

We have a clear goal, Obama said with Petraeus beside him. We are going to break the Taliban's momentum. The war will now be prosecuted with renewed force. It is a runaway war.

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