Obama, Afghanistan and general McChrystal

The public clash between Obama and his top general in Afghanistan highlight the difficulties US imperialism is facing in what is clearly an unwinnable war. What the general has done is to express in public what is normally reserved for private conversation, but it does bring out clearly the impasse the US is facing in Afghanistan.

An article that appears in the US Rolling Stone magazine on June 22nd has caused a political furore in the States. In private, generals of all countries do not refrain from the most blistering criticisms of politics. They are essentially simple men who imagine that all wars can be solved by blasting away with rockets and rapid-fire machine guns. And their view of politics is no different from their views on wars.

The contempt of the military mind for all politicians finds its mirror image in the contempt felt by many politicians for the limitations of the military mind. It was Clemenceau who said that “war is too important a matter to be left to the military”. And if I am not mistaken, it was President Truman who was firmly convinced that his generals were unable to march and chew gum at the same time.

However, it is one thing for a serving general to voice sceptical opinions about his political masters in private. It is another thing altogether when these views are made public in a magazine that is widely quoted in all the media, nationally and internationally.

The row that has exploded between President Obama and the commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal indicates the fraught relations between the US political Establishment and the generals, which has serious implications for the future.

The gentle art…

There is a famous book called The gentle art of winning friends and influencing people. We do not know whether the general has read this book, but it would have been useful when he recently went to France to sell his new war strategy to America’s NATO allies, or, as the Rolling Stone article put it, “to keep up the fiction, in essence, that we actually have allies.”

Everybody knows that the war in Afghanistan is going badly. The total death toll of the coalition forces is almost two thousand, over a thousand of them American. McChrystal is in Paris “to keep the French, who have lost more than 40 soldiers in Afghanistan, from going all wobbly on him.”

The magazine continues:

“Since McChrystal took over a year ago, the Afghan war has become the exclusive property of the United States. Opposition to the war has already toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of Germany's president and sparked both Canada and the Netherlands to announce the withdrawal of their 4,500 troops.”

McChrystal is outspoken and, like many of his kind, he is unused to the subtleties of diplomacy, particularly of the Parisian kind. This being France, the country of haute cuisine and exquisite diplomacy, the most important business was to be conducted over truffles and champagne in a four-star suite at the Hôtel Westminster in Paris. The article in Rolling Stone magazine describes the setting in which the high drama is about to be enacted:

“The general stands and looks around the suite that his traveling staff of 10 has converted into a full-scale operations center. The tables are crowded with silver Panasonic Toughbooks, and blue cables crisscross the hotel's thick carpet, hooked up to satellite dishes to provide encrypted phone and e-mail communications. Dressed in off-the-rack civilian casual – blue tie, button-down shirt, dress slacks – McChrystal is way out of his comfort zone. Paris, as one of his advisers says, is the ‘most anti-McChrystal city you can imagine.’ The general hates fancy restaurants, rejecting any place with candles on the tables as too ‘Gucci.’ He prefers Bud Light Lime (his favorite beer) to Bordeaux.”

Being more accustomed to burgers and (admittedly French) fries than the kind of food served up in this high class hotel where, on a Thursday night in mid-April, the general, who is sitting with his chief of staff, Col. Charlie Flynn, turning to the latter, asks a somewhat undiplomatic question:

”How'd I get screwed into going to this dinner?"

"The dinner comes with the position, sir," answers Flynn.

McChrystal turns sharply in his chair.

"Hey, Charlie," he asks, "does this come with the position?" And the general shows him his middle finger in a gesture very familiar to New York cab drivers but not usually associated with diplomacy between the Great Powers. He delivers new pearls of wisdom:

"I'd rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner."

He pauses for a moment.

"Unfortunately," he adds, "no one in this room could do it."

Obama and the generals

In the brief twelve month period he has been in charge of the war, McChrystal has succeeded brilliantly in treading on the toes of almost everyone involved in it. Evidently he was far more comfortable killing people than dining in French hotels. Before President Obama gave him the running of the war in Afghanistan, he spent five years running the Pentagon's clandestine “black operations” involving murder, torture, kidnapping and other such simple and meritorious activities that do not over-tax the brain, delivering excellent results and saving a lot of time.

During his election campaign one of Barack Obama’s most important promises on foreign policy was to bring the war in Afghanistan to a successful conclusion. In March 2009 he announced: "I want the American people to understand. We have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan." This is easier said than done. His first step was to order another 21,000 troops to Kabul, the largest increase since the war began in 2001.

The general’s first meeting with Obama, one week after he took office, was in a room at the Pentagon known as the Tank where the president met with a dozen senior military. According to people with knowledge of the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked "uncomfortable and intimidated" by the roomful of top military men. This observation faithfully reflects the relation between most politicians and the generals – but particularly Social Democrats and “progressive” politicians.

Taking the advice of the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Obama sacked Gen. David McKiernan, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, and replaced him with McChrystal. No top general had been relieved from duty during wartime since Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur at the height of the Korean War more than 50 years ago.

Obama did not even know who the new man was. Four months later, after Obama had put him in charge of Afghanistan, they had their first one-on-one meeting in the Oval Office. An adviser to McChrystal recalls: "It was a 10-minute photo op. Obama clearly didn't know anything about him, who he was. Here's the guy who's going to run his fucking war, but he didn't seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed."

Who is McChrystal?

General McChrystal. Photo by Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison.General McChrystal. Photo by Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison. The son of a general, McChrystal studied at the famous military academy of West Point in 1972, where he passed out as 298 out of a class of 855. Although this may be seen as a mediocre result, he earned the admiration of his classmates for his considerable skills at drinking and partying. He wrote a short story called "Brinkman's Note," about a terrorist who, pretending to be a secret service agent, infiltrates the White House and successfully caries out his plot to assassinate the president. Significantly, perhaps, it was written in the first person singular.

During the invasion of Iraq, when he was a Pentagon spokesperson, McChrystal justified the notorious statement of Rumsfeld on the looting of Baghdad that “stuff happens”. When a US Ranger, corporal Tillman, was accidentally killed by his own troops in Afghanistan in April 2004, McChrystal took an active role in creating the impression that the man had been killed by enemy fire. He signed a falsified recommendation for a Silver Star that suggested Tillman had died at the hands of Taliban fighters.

Later, McChrystal sent a memo up the chain of command, specifically warning that President Bush should avoid mentioning the cause of Tillman's death. "If the circumstances of Corporal Tillman's death become public," he wrote, it could cause "public embarrassment" for the president. Nine days after Tillman's death, McChrystal was promoted to major general.

The Joint Special Operations Command, the elite forces that McChrystal headed, carries out the government's darkest operations. During the Iraq surge, his team killed and captured thousands of insurgents, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. In 2006, McChrystal was involved in a scandal involving the abuse and torture of detainees at Camp Nama in Iraq. Prisoners at the camp were subjected to torture in the form of stress positions, being dragged naked through the mud, etc. Although an interrogator at the camp reported seeing him inspect the prison multiple times, McChrystal was not disciplined.

In May 2009, as McChrystal prepared for his confirmation hearings, his staff prepared him for difficult questions about Camp Nama and the Tillman cover-up. But the scandals were hushed up, and McChrystal was soon on his way back to Kabul to run the war in Afghanistan.

What is COIN?

McChrystal had very definite views on how to win the war in Afghanistan, based on a military strategy known as counterinsurgency, or COIN, as it has been baptised by the elite that controls the Pentagon. The military has a decided preference for brute force as a means for settling all problems. COIN therefore demanded the sending of huge numbers of ground troops to the theatre of war.

With the aid of the most modern and sophisticated technology, such as the unmanned drones that drop bombs, they have killed a lot of people. "JSOC was a killing machine," says Maj. Gen. Mayville, his chief of operations. Unfortunately, the “killing machine” has killed a lot of Afghan civilians, and for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies.

In the first four months of this year, NATO forces killed some 90 civilians, an increase of 76 percent from the same period in 2009. This kind of thing does little to improve the attitude of the population that COIN in theory is supposed to be winning over. In February, a Special Forces night raid ended in the deaths of two pregnant Afghan women, followed by a cover-up. In April, protests erupted in Kandahar after U.S. forces shot up a bus, killing five Afghans. "We've shot an amazing number of people," McChrystal recently stated. He has thus become the number one recruiting sergeant for the insurgents.

But even the most incorrigible optimists have to admit that this task will require years, if not decades. And since Afghanistan is what is known as a “failed state”, and since Washington would like this failed state to provide soldiers to do all the fighting and dying instead of American ones, the mission must also entail reconstructing the Afghan state and society. This is slightly more complicated than sending drones to drop bombs on people.

It also means that generals, in addition to killing a lot of people, must master the skills of diplomacy and politics, which, after all, to paraphrase Clausewitz, is only the continuation of warfare by other means. Overnight, the Green Berets became an armed Peace Corps! John Wayne must be turning in his grave.

There is unfortunately a serious flaw in this logic. It was understood long ago by Robespierre, who pointed out that people do not like missionaries armed with bayonets. And in no country in the world is this assertion truer than in Afghanistan, as every invader from Alexander the Great onwards has found out to their cost. In this context, the “theory” of COIN was simply mad. "The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people," says Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel and leading critic of counterinsurgency who attended West Point with McChrystal. "The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.”

Blackmailing the President

McChrystal had already had occasion to test his theories in Iraq. It was very simple: find out how your enemy operates, be faster and more ruthless than them, and wipe them off the face of the earth. As soon as he arrived in Afghanistan last June, the general produced a report that was leaked to the press, presenting a dire picture of the situation: If he didn't get another 40,000 troops (practically doubling the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan) there was a danger of "mission failure."

This was a blatant attempt to twist the President’s arm: either he did what the general wanted, or Obama would appear as weak. It was a case of the White House versus the Pentagon, and the Pentagon was determined to win. In reply, Obama announced a three-month review to re-evaluate the strategy in Afghanistan. Vice President Biden argued that a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan would plunge America into a quagmire without achieving the objective of defeating international terrorism.

On December 1st, in a speech at West Point, Obama explained why fighting the war in Afghanistan was a bad idea: It was expensive. There was an economic crisis; along-term commitment would undermine American power. Al Qaeda had shifted its base of operations to Pakistan. Then, having made out a very good case against stepping up the war in Afghanistan, Obama announced that he would send an additional 30,000 troops. McChrystal got almost all he wanted. In the conflict between the White House and the generals, the latter had won.

The general, it seems, sleeps just four hours a night, runs seven miles each morning, and eats only one meal a day. But it is far from clear that the ability to go without sleep and food is an effective recipe for winning the war in Afghanistan. The Rolling Stone article contains a very interesting description of the US general staff: “The general's staff is a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs.” McChrystal told the Rolling Stone journalist: “All these men... I'd die for them. And they'd die for me.”

Happily, the general and his heroic staff are not faced with such an unpleasant prospect and will probably all live to a ripe old age. But many of the unfortunate young people who come from poor working class areas of New York and Michigan and join the armed forces to escape poverty and unemployment may never return home.

The mood of the troops

The most decisive element in the equation is the morale of the troops. They feel frustrated at the lack of progress and their morale is sapped by the knowledge that the war is deeply unpopular at home. The attempts of McChrystal to combat their scepticism have not succeeded, as the following extract shows:

“Underneath a tent, the general has a 45-minute discussion with some two dozen soldiers. The atmosphere is tense. ‘I ask you what's going on in your world, and I think it's important for you all to understand the big picture as well,’ McChrystal begins. ‘How's the company doing? You guys feeling sorry for yourselves? Anybody? Anybody feel like you're losing?’ McChrystal says.

" ‘Sir, some of the guys here, sir, think we're losing, sir,’ says Hicks.

“(…) During the question-and-answer period, the frustration boils over. The soldiers complain about not being allowed to use lethal force, about watching insurgents they detain be freed for lack of evidence. They want to be able to fight – like they did in Iraq, like they had in Afghanistan before McChrystal. ‘We aren't putting fear into the Taliban,’ one soldier says.

“(…) As the discussion ends, McChrystal seems to sense that he hasn't succeeded at easing the men's anger. He makes one last-ditch effort to reach them, acknowledging the death of Cpl. Ingram. ‘There's no way I can make that easier,’ he tells them. ‘No way I can pretend it won't hurt. No way I can tell you not to feel that.... I will tell you, you're doing a great job. Don't let the frustration get to you.’ The session ends with no clapping, and no real resolution. McChrystal may have sold President Obama on counterinsurgency, but many of his own men aren't buying it.”

The Pentagon has been planning to launch a major military operation this summer in Kandahar. It was supposed to be a decisive turning point - the main justification for the extra troops that McChrystal demanded, and got, from Obama late last year. But on June 10th the general announced that he is postponing the offensive until the autumn. Now the idea is to send the Afghan police and army into Kandahar, while the U.S. pours $90 million of aid into the city to win over the civilian population.

But the new plan does not have many admirers. "The Taliban have a jackboot on the city," a military official was reported as saying. "We have to remove them, but we have to do it in a way that doesn't alienate the population." He adds: "There aren't going to be doors kicked in." Other U.S. officials insist that doors are going to be kicked in, but that “it's going to be a kinder, gentler offensive than the disaster in Marja”.

Here the fundamental flaws of counterinsurgency are cruelly exposed. After nine years of war, the Taliban simply remains too strongly entrenched for the U.S. military to attack Kandahar directly. They hope to pass the hot potato to the Afghan army and police. But nobody believes that this is possible. President Karzai, used his influence to delay the offensive. The U.S. army will have to enter Kandahar and kick doors down. But they will take care to kick them down in a kinder and gentler manner. It is sufficient to state the question to see how idiotic it is.

The central difficulty is easily expressed: the Afghan people do not want the foreign forces in their country. The huge amounts of money aimed at bribing the population only serve to fuel corruption, aggravating the feelings of resentment and hostility among the people, who see little or nothing of the aid that flows directly into the bank accounts of Karzai and his family and stooges.

The strategy of counterinsurgency will succeed only in creating a situation of perpetual war. Obama never speaks of "victory" in Afghanistan because no victory is possible, as the British learned over a hundred years ago. Sooner or later the Americans and their allies will have to get out of Afghanistan. But before that happens, the bloody and intractable conflict will be the cause of more than one political crisis in America and the rest of the world.

An unwinnable war

The splits in the ranks of the American establishment are shown by the clashes between McChrystal and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. Ambassador in Afghanistan. In January, Eikenberry wrote a classified cable that was leaked to The New York Times, which made a brutal criticism of McChrystal's strategy. The ambassador dismissed President Hamid Karzai as "not an adequate strategic partner," and cast doubt on whether the counterinsurgency plan would be "sufficient" to deal with Al Qaeda. "We will become more deeply engaged here with no way to extricate ourselves," Eikenberry warned, "short of allowing the country to descend again into lawlessness and chaos."

Unlike Eikenberry or Holbrooke, McChrystal enjoys excellent relations with Hamid Karzai, the corrupt and unpopular president of Afghanistan. Karzai, unsurprisingly, has immediately sprung to the defence of his friend, arguing that McChrystal is “the best general America has sent to Afghanistan” and a “trusted partner” and opposing his removal. More importantly, McChrystal has support in the Pentagon and (it is said) among the troops. But there are powerful figures in the White House who are demanding his removal. At the root of the dispute are the complex relations between the US government and the Pentagon.

McChrystal is part of a tight-knit group representing the most powerful force shaping U.S. policy in Afghanistan. His men are in complete command of all military aspects of the war. Many commentators say he cannot be removed. This may or may not be true. Although the military Establishment has colossal power, the US ruling class cannot afford to allow them a free hand in running wars, and if a general goes too far in pursuing his own agenda without considering the general interests of US imperialism, he will find himself in a state of comfortable but impotent retirement.

The war in Afghanistan cannot be won. In February of this year a major offensive was launched to retake the southern town of Marja. But despite all the terrifying firepower of the US army, the fighting continues to drag on. McChrystal himself has referred to it as a "bleeding ulcer." Even as McChrystal prepares for an offensive in southern Afghanistan, the prospects for any kind of success look ever more distant. The death toll for U.S. troops rises inexorably. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent with absolutely no result. The attempts to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population have failed miserably. With every drone that kills innocent civilians, the hatred of ordinary Afghans towards the foreign interlopers grows.

Obama may remove his unruly general in order to show that he is a strong President (he is criticized for being weak over the oil slick crisis). Or he may decide to let McChrystal continue with his plan. If his strategy does not work – and it will not work the USA will be in serious difficulties. America and its president are stuck in a quagmire. But Obama can blame his general for the defeat.

Despite the financial crisis, military spending continues at an astronomical level. The US Department of Defense enjoys a budget in excess of $600 billion a year. In Afghanistan, the imperialists are entangled in an unwinnable conflict. The U.S. is now spending there more than in Iraq. But the insurgents are collecting up to $400m a year from the opium trade and have almost unlimited reserves of money, arms and manpower from Pakistan.

In June, the number of US troops killed passed the thousand mark. Afghanistan has now displaced Vietnam as the longest war in American history. Obama has quietly dropped the deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops in July of next year. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, together with the effects of the economic crisis, will serve to increase the instability in the USA and in Europe. Apart from being an enormous drain on the economy, there will be one shock after another.

Before the outbreak of the Second World War, with astonishing prescience, Leon Trotsky predicted that the USA would emerge as the main victor in the coming conflict, and that it would dominate the entire world, but it would have dynamite built into its foundations. The 11th September, and the calamitous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown how right he was.

London, June 23, 2010

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