Rolling Stone’s crashing article on Afghanistan and McChrystal

The COIN doctrine is the name for the current strategy of nation-building + counterinsurgency (=hold tight and win hearts and minds and build a government). It is, oddly enough, inspired by the most failed foreign wars of recent times: France in Algeria, America in Vietnam. Both utter failures, whose lesson was precisely that it was virtually impossible to accomplish the above things as an occupying military force. If we learned those lessons, we’ve since forgotten them. Or more likely, if the general population learned from those wars that it should not allow political leaders to persuade it into such wars, it has since forgotten that lesson. Political leaders will always be trying to persuade us into such wars, and it is up to the citizenry to cultivate its past lessons and remain informed. Two of our most elephantine failures.

General McChrystal is the top general in Afghanistan. He’s not a good guy. He was kind of a loser at West Point, according to this article, since he came in several hundred places behind the top position and since the anecdotes from his buddies then mostly record a man more interest in partying than being serious. Under Cheney, he was actively involved in deceiving the public over the friendly-fire incident of an early Afghanistan US casualty. He was a go-to man for Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld, and moved up the ranks under their watch. He finally made it into the secret closet of black ops, the place where the dirty work gets done. He toured prisons where torture was a regular practice, and voiced no criticisms of such practices.

He sort of detests Obama, whom he probably regards as too big of a wuss, unlike Bush/Cheney. If we left things to him, it seems we would probably no longer be concerned with the local population or the differences between civilians and insurgents, nor the complicated causalities of anit-US sentiment. He mostly wants to go kill bad guys. I get the impression that deep inside, he’s little different from the Rambo-general depicted in the movie Avatar.

He is currently under major fire. He let some comments get out to a reporter, and these comments reflected poorly on Obama, and were even mocking in tone. The White House is furious. It is impossible to tell if they were intentional or accidentally published, but it seems likely that this is part of a kind power play by McChrystal, who has pulled such stunts in the past (he had a memo leaked, for example, that “accidentally” showed to the public his assessment that we were gonna lose in Afghanistan unless we committed like forty thousand more troops; Obama was furious, but eventually caved and sent thirty thousand troops, like the general wanted). This new article, revealing that uncertainties in the armed forces (about the ability to win in Afghanistan) go all the way to the top, is just what the White House doesn’t want to see. Not allowed to have doubts about the war. The political dogma when fighting a war is, always, “we’re winning. almost there. just a little further. it’s always darkest just before dawn. we’re about to defeat the enemy.”

Furthermore, the White House’s position today is pretty revealing. A general says, essentially, Obama and co., you suck. And Obama responds: “You used poor judgement in these statements, and I’m probably gonna fire you now.” And the general replies: “Oh, you’re right, I used, as you say, “poor judgement.” Everything I said, I guess I didn’t mean, so just pretend I didn’t say it and assume that I’m wrong and you’re right.”  Basically this is just a power move between the two parties, and Obama’s response will be a test of his ability to hold political ground against the military and the right.

This Rolling Stone article is well put together. It is self-consciously hostile to the war effort in Afghanistan, which it wants to expose as wrong-headed and unwinnable. Certain passages are very revealing. See below:

Catch-22. We want you to kill people, but without killing people. We want you to raid civilian areas, but without touching any civilians. We’ll order you to attack civilian buildings, and then make you apologize for killing civilians.

Even in his new role as America’s leading evangelist for counterinsurgency, McChrystal retains the deep-seated instincts of a terrorist hunter. To put pressure on the Taliban, he has upped the number of Special Forces units in Afghanistan from four to 19. “You better be out there hitting four or five targets tonight,” McChrystal will tell a Navy Seal he sees in the hallway at headquarters. Then he’ll add, “I’m going to have to scold you in the morning for it, though.” In fact, the general frequently finds himself apologizing for the disastrous consequences of counterinsurgency. In the first four months of this year, NATO forces killed some 90 civilians, up 76 percent from the same period in 2009 – a record that has created tremendous resentment among the very population that COIN theory is intent on winning over. In February, a Special Forces night raid ended in the deaths of two pregnant Afghan women and allegations of a cover-up, and in April, protests erupted in Kandahar after U.S. forces accidentally shot up a bus, killing five Afghans. “We’ve shot an amazing number of people,” McChrystal recently conceded.

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Irony: can we have an war machine that awards itself for avoiding destruction? An anti-war war machine? Killers awarded for not killing?

Despite the tragedies and miscues, McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It’s “insurgent math,” as he calls it – for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. He has ordered convoys to curtail their reckless driving, put restrictions on the use of air power and severely limited night raids. He regularly apologizes to Hamid Karzai when civilians are killed, and berates commanders responsible for civilian deaths. “For a while,” says one U.S. official, “the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan was in front of McChrystal after a ‘civ cas’ incident.” The ISAF command has even discussed ways to make not killing into something you can win an award for: There’s talk of creating a new medal for “courageous restraint,” a buzzword that’s unlikely to gain much traction in the gung-ho culture of the U.S. military.

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Contradiction: what does it mean to deploy killers and war machines and tell them to attack peacefully? To attack, but without killing?

But however strategic they may be, McChrystal’s new marching orders have caused an intense backlash among his own troops. Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. “Bottom line?” says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.”

One soldier shows me the list of new regulations the platoon was given. “Patrol only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourselves with lethal force,” the laminated card reads. For a soldier who has traveled halfway around the world to fight, that’s like telling a cop he should only patrol in areas where he knows he won’t have to make arrests. “Does that make any fucking sense?” asks Pfc. Jared Pautsch. “We should just drop a fucking bomb on this place. You sit and ask yourself: What are we doing here?”

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Why are we at war? Why are we fighting and killing people? What thing is worth the thousands of US casualties (1000+ fatal) and countless Afghan casualties?

We are supposed to just do as we are told. We are not supposed to ask question. The emperors are naked and we’re not supposed to say. Notice the stammering soldier who has questions he knows he isn’t supposed to voice. This mirrors McChrystal himself who voiced doubts he wasn’t supposed to have – and gets promptly censured by the WhiteHouse (he may very well get fired over having voiced these doubts). Uncertainty? That’s practically treason! Off with his head! Conclusion: we are in an age where we’re not really supposed to think.

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.

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Some good-old military-speak. Clichés and truisms that seem to explain it all without really saying much of anything.

“I agree with you,” McChrystal says. “In this area, we’ve not made progress, probably. You have to show strength here, you have to use fire. What I’m telling you is, fire costs you. What do you want to do? You want to wipe the population out here and resettle it?”

A soldier complains that under the rules, any insurgent who doesn’t have a weapon is immediately assumed to be a civilian. “That’s the way this game is,” McChrystal says. “It’s complex. I can’t just decide: It’s shirts and skins, and we’ll kill all the shirts.”

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Success in Afghanistan?

When it comes to Afghanistan, history is not on McChrystal’s side. The only foreign invader to have any success here was Genghis Khan – and he wasn’t hampered by things like human rights, economic development and press scrutiny.

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The article’s conclusion: we are long past the point where “success” was a possibility. The war machine has made the production of more war its most lasting accomplishment.

But even if he somehow manages to succeed, after years of bloody fighting with Afghan kids who pose no threat to the U.S. homeland, the war will do little to shut down Al Qaeda, which has shifted its operations to Pakistan. Dispatching 150,000 troops to build new schools, roads, mosques and water-treatment facilities around Kandahar is like trying to stop the drug war in Mexico by occupying Arkansas and building Baptist churches in Little Rock.

Whatever the nature of the new plan, the delay underscores the fundamental flaws of counterinsurgency. After nine years of war, the Taliban simply remains too strongly entrenched for the U.S. military to openly attack. The very people that COIN seeks to win over – the Afghan people – do not want us there. Our supposed ally, President Karzai, used his influence to delay the offensive, and the massive influx of aid championed by McChrystal is likely only to make things worse. “Throwing money at the problem exacerbates the problem,” says Andrew Wilder, an expert at Tufts University who has studied the effect of aid in southern Afghanistan. “A tsunami of cash fuels corruption, delegitimizes the government and creates an environment where we’re picking winners and losers” – a process that fuels resentment and hostility among the civilian population. So far, counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war. There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word “victory” when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge.

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Juan Cole asks “What would happen if, as the US drew down, the provinces around Kabul started swiftly falling to the Taliban or allied insurgents?” My guess is, however, that this is what is going to happen either way. It’s just a question of how many civilians we kill in the meantime, and how much US money goes down the drain.

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One Response to Rolling Stone’s crashing article on Afghanistan and McChrystal

  1. Pingback: The beginning of the end of the Afghanistan war « Political Crumbs

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