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The Unwomanly Face of War

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When the ‘Right War’ Goes Wrong

Posted on Jun 29, 2010
U.S. Army / Ted Green

By William Pfaff

The increasingly dangerous Afghanistan situation is worth analysis at two levels, that of the war itself, the ultimately doomed attempt by the United States to conquer the Taliban insurrection and impose a pro-American government, and the domestic political effect of Barack Obama’s misguided decision to replace “Bush’s war” in Iraq with “Obama’s war” in Afghanistan.

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The former rested on the fiction that Saddam Hussein threatened the United States and Israel with weapons of mass destruction. The Afghan intervention is being promoted by the yet more extravagant fantasy that America and the world are potentially threatened by Taliban-controlled Pakistani nuclear weapons.

The recent political focus has been on the replacement of Gen. Stanley McChrystal with the man whose counterinsurgency policy he was supposed to be carrying out, Gen. David Petraeus, former chief of the U.S. Army’s Central Command and principal author of current American military doctrine on insurgent warfare.

This doctrine proposes defeating an insurgency by systematically clearing with regular troops a given area under insurgent domination, then establishing there, with the help of a “surge” of American civilian nation-builders, a new representative and responsive democratic political structure, while American troops, with local soldiers and police, move on to “take” another insurgent-held area so as to clear out the insurgents there.

This is classic anti-guerrilla warfare, employed by the U.S. in the Philippines in 1899-1902, in Vietnam in the later 1960s and 1970s, and as part of the “Sunni Awakening” movement in Iraq. It is totally dependent upon the political context in which it functions, which is largely hostile today in Afghanistan. The current object of American attention is the area of Marja, which Gen. McChrystal promised to clear and hold—bringing in a civilian “government in a box” to its welcoming inhabitants. Next was to be Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city. But U.S. forces opened the Marja box and found it contained nothing, and because the area has not yet been satisfactorily cleared, the Taliban have re-infiltrated.


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The commentator Ray McGovern, a longtime CIA officer become critic of America’s contemporary wars, has suggested (in the online magazine Truthout, June 25) that Gen. McChrystal’s seemingly foolhardy dalliance with a Rolling Stones left-wing journalist, leading to the general’s dismissal, may have actually been a calculated method to abandon what he had come to judge a sinking American ship in Afghanistan.

President Obama’s replacement of McChrystal with Gen. Petraeus astutely protected the president from Republican attack, but could also be seen, from the electoral perspective, as a double coup.

Both generals have in the past indicated presidential ambitions, and now McChrystal is disgraced and out, and if McChrystal’s supposed pessimism about the military situation is accurate, Petraeus, who formulated the Afghanistan strategy, is the man who will sink with the ship.

There will be no general to challenge the president unless McChrystal (who is said to have voted for Obama in 2008) were to offer himself to the Republicans in 2012. A general on his way to success, stabbed in the back by leftist journalists, jettisoned by a liberal administration composed of those un-American aliens-who-govern-us, ready to surrender to terrorism, strikes me as a more promising Republican presidential candidate than Sarah Palin, never convincing as a national candidate, and by 2012 hopelessly shopworn.

Afghanistan’s war now is out of America’s political control, even as tens of thousands of U.S. troops arrive, and the mammoth bases that have become essential to U.S. military operations are being constructed. They will be there when the Obama-ordered “top-to-bottom” policy review takes place in December. By then a great deal can have happened, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai pursues a political settlement with certain Taliban and other warlords and ethnic leaders in his country, and what’s left of the old Northern Alliance, and indirectly with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency that has always been involved with the Taliban in Afghanistan. As for al-Qaida, it is now a phantom which manifests its existence chiefly in Washington think tanks and editorial offices. Afghanistan and Pakistan will do what is best for them.

The ambition among the most important of those who actually live in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and are unwilling to see both countries torn apart by an American war machine historically conditioned to function at full blast with maximum destruction, is what the head of Pakistan’s army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, calls a “grand national reconciliation” in Afghanistan (see the Paris daily Le Figaro, June 29). American troops, The New York Times tells us, are glad to see McChrystal gone because he relentlessly opposed indiscriminate use of airpower and artillery against peasant guerrillas, since blowing up the house and family of anyone who shoots at an American is much the safest way for infantry to advance, but does not make citizens friendly.

Higher military and political ranks in Washington remain obsessed with Afghanistan’s strategic position and resources, and with the danger of Pakistan, with its own Taliban domestic threat, its nuclear weapons, and its huge and intensely nationalistic army which, by and large, hates and fears the United States. This could explode into a new war should the United States move into Pakistan territory in its quest to kill “violent extremists” and control nuclear weapons. Anatol Lieven’s article on Pakistan, which he knows well, in the May-June issue of The National Interest magazine, is essential reading.

Barack Obama’s “right war” points toward an even bigger disaster.

The only solution is for Obama to keep his promise to leave Afghanistan in 2011—at the latest.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy,” at

© 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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By huckleberry_finn, July 18, 2010 at 8:29 am Link to this comment

Well, it’s been quite a while since the whole story
unfolded and where did we get? General shift of strategy or any great achievements? I doubt. Seems that author of this article was right — Petraeus-McChrystal story was about trading even-Steven.

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By WorldCitizen, July 4, 2010 at 11:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


O! say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s fangs gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fright,
O’er the television we watched, as our victims were screaming
And the cruise missiles red glare, the drones firing from nowhere,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O! say does that blood spattered banner yet wave
O’er the lands of other peoples, and the lands of their graves.

On the shores, dimly seen through the mists of oil deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread violence opposes,
What is that which the breeze, unfolds o’re the sheep,
As it fitfully blows, and conceals, never discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full gory reflected now shines amongst the screams:
‘Tis the blood spangled banner, How long will it wave
O’er the lands of the conquered and their earth filled with graves.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
The blood has washed in their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of blight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the blood spattered banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the Kings and the home of the knave.

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Cursed with wars and not peace, this bedeviled land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is thus,
And this be our motto: “In might we do trust.”
And the blood spattered banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the vacuous and their creation of graves.

When our land is illumined with unmitigated bile,
If a foe from within strikes a blow at her history,
Up, up with all those who try to defile
The flag of the stars, and the stripes that are so gory.
By the millions so chained,Who their birthright have drained
We will keep her bright blazon forever stained;
And the blood-spattered banner shall wave,
While the land of the myth creates more and more graves.

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By radson, July 1, 2010 at 6:26 pm Link to this comment

dihey ;your borrowing a page from Fiskys script!

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By dihey, July 1, 2010 at 1:28 pm Link to this comment

Mr. Obama and his generals have falsely tried to justify their escalation of the Afghanistan war by talking incessantly about a needed “counterinsurgency”. It was no longer the old Bush-war; no, this was going to be a very clever, very intelligent, very intellectual, very necessary, and very sooo-today war; one of “wills” according to a recent characterization by general Petraeus.
Well, there is no “counterinsurgency” in Afghanistan because there are no “insurgents” in that country. What Obama and his generals are fighting and killing are men who want to kick armed foreign killers out of their country. The fact that they do this to establish their own possibly very nasty rule over the country does not make them “insurgents”. It is a classic case of who fights against and who supports the murderous foreigner. In that respect Afghanistan is a replay of the Maccabeans vs. Pharisees in Roman times, royalists vs. independencistas of our own revolutionary war, and, more recently, the North vs. South of the Vietnam war.
And regarding “will”, it has long ago been established that invaders/colonialists always lose in the long run when it comes to “will” which is why Syria, Iraq, the “Stans” (except for Afghanistan), India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and every country in Africa is independent today.
I am enormously amused by every writer and speaker who has picked up the term “counterinsurgency” as if he/she has found a glittering new linguistic gemstone among the rubble of war-verbiage all by himself/herself. The hilarious truth is that such writers/speakers only ape the military and civilian coiners of the word.

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By last_boy_scout, July 1, 2010 at 4:10 am Link to this comment

I don’t believe in a concept of the “right war”. No
war can ever be considered right.

And given the McChrystal’s retirement, Petraeus
appointment and the whole shift of the Afghan
strategy, I wonder what would happen to the MI-7
deal. U.S. military planned to purchase few Russian
utility helicopters, as long as they were proved to
be much more suitable and reliable in Afghanistan,
than the Blackhawks (and cheaper as well).

Senators Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala., ex D.-Ala.) and
Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), lobbying the interests
of Defense Solution group, however, questioned the
necessity of this deal (source —, having
offered to give the contract to some “good ole
American guys” rather than Russians with their
“doubtful democratic identity”. The decision-making
process should be up in the air by now. I kinda
wonder how it all would turn out.

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By ofersince72, June 30, 2010 at 2:45 pm Link to this comment

There never was nor will there ever be a “RIGHT” war.
especially this illegal, murderous, fradulent
WAR ON TERROR….............

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By jtg, June 30, 2010 at 10:57 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Assume for the moment that Ray McGovern’s analysis, as reported by Mr. Pfaff, is correct: “that Gen. McChrystal’s seemingly foolhardy dalliance with a Rolling Stones left-wing journalist, leading to the general’s dismissal, may have actually been a calculated method to abandon what he had come to judge a sinking American ship in Afghanistan.” 

Then, it seems to me, that McCrystal is not at all “disgraced and out”.  Far from it:  if (when) the public (finally) perceives this particular war to be an unredeemable failure, McCrystal’s dramatic exit will protect him from blame; his insubordination will be lauded as righteous indignation by the rabid Obama haters and others on the right, seen as “gumption” by those who generally dislike the “gu’ment”, and as entirely pardonable by most of the rest of us.  He will, following this line of speculation, be in an excellent position to become the Republicans’ nominee in 2012 or 2016.

Personally, I believe the General’s inappropriate comments are more likely the result of his convictions of superior understanding joined with the isolation and harsh conditions of combat command than any devious and subtle political strategy.  But whether intentional or not, the manner in which he has distanced himself from the failure of the Afghan campaign may have the effect of thrusting him into the political arena, should things get bad enough quickly enough.  Be that as it may, writing him off as “disgraced” seems to me quite premature.

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By thecrow, June 30, 2010 at 5:25 am Link to this comment

“The momentum of Asia’s economic development is already generating massive pressures for the exploration and exploitation of new sources of energy and the Central Asian region and the Caspian Sea basin are known to contain reserves of natural gas and oil that dwarf those of Kuwait, the Gulf of Mexico, or the North Sea.”

- Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard, 1997

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By acbar, June 29, 2010 at 11:51 pm Link to this comment

Certainly of Pfaff’s analysis is good.  However, Rolling Stone’s Michael Hasting’s points out in his famous article that the U.S. fears deeply a Karzai-led reconciliation with the Taliban.  They fear concessions to them (they already control large areas in the mountains) would lead to new refuge for al Queda.  This is not to say we must “fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here.”  Only to point out the bind Obama has gotten himself into.  In 1968, we feared Communism rolling through SE Asia - into Indonesia, I suppose.  Today we fear al Queda safely pursuing nuclear ambitions, a group with nothing to lose.  This fuels the fires of fear and consequently what the left sees as American aggression.  The right sees it as self-preservation.  I’m not at all sure what the answer is, but I can hear my inner hippie saying force Israel to accept Palestinian needs/demands, in other words, rein in our rabid dog there.  He says get out of Iraq and Afghanistan and take a more peaceful stance in the world.  These are all political impossibilities given the realities of American power relationships.  Where will we wind up?  History is a fearsome and very creative goddess.

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By ofersince72, June 29, 2010 at 9:12 pm Link to this comment

Short Take from Edward Herman, 1991, very relevent today.

“In late 1966, New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury
visited North Vietnam and, for the first time in the
mainstream media, described the enormous devestation
U.S. airpower had wreaked on that small, relatively
defenseless country.  This elicitedhostile, viruperative
reactions from the Pentagon, other government officials,
and many elements of the press itself….......
I.F. Stone reported on the Salisbury case in his Weekly
(Jan. 9, 1967) Some excerpts follow:

So a barrage of slander has been laid down. TIME….,
which can always be counted on for well-rounded views,
attacks Salisbury"s reports as “uncritical, one dimensional.”  NEWSWEEK…said of Salisbury"s observation
that “American bombing has been inflictng considerable
civilian casualties in Hanoi” - “To American eyes, it
read like the line from TASS…”.  The WASHINGTON POST
...was frenetic.  Two days after the first Salisbury
dispatch appeared, its main page-one story with a four-
column headline was “Hanoi Seen Exploiting Its Civilian
Casualties.”........The climax of the WASHINGTON POST’S
impotent fury was a story the next day,
“Ho Tries a New Propaganda Weapon” by Chalmers Roberts…
Even this was topped by Crosby Noyes in the Washington
Star…. He said this was the first U.S. government
in history to permit “the systematic subversion” of its
military commitment abroad.  He attacked “an important
segment of the press” for its “utter lack of identification…with what the government defines as the
national interest”  He thought it strange if not sinister
for the government to allow any visits to Hanoi at all.
Poor Joe McCarthy! He died too soon.

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By radson, June 29, 2010 at 6:50 pm Link to this comment

The urge to surge

the death by drones

the Eid activated by cell phone

just waiting for a call

the cull of life for the mammon mammoth awaits

as the phantoms prowl the gates

to reap the prize ,which is just beyond our eyes

yet humbles the takers the movers and the shakers

to conquer a land with rules that are bent and twisted

is in essence not a war

for war knows no rules only death and destruction

the vileness of the enterprise is clear

when one thinks of morality the choice is fear

yet morality is nowhere near

to win the hearts and minds

in the technocratic lingo it means never mind

in this never never land

that still haunts many powers

even at this late hour

the general left but the ball is still there

the crystal ball that was wrought by Petraeus

is there hope or will it rot

to be buried in the graveyard of empires

as Obama seeks a second term

or is it termination

for the proselytizers need a line

worthy of Durand to swoon the masses

and halve the fear ,which is lurking near

a choice must be made

shall a Stalinist approach be applied with deportations and mass murder

it actually worked in America’s back yard

but to sell the pogrom would be very hard and utterly foolish

yet a partition of the land may buy the hawks some time

time to form a tribe

a tribe where a reconstruct may take place

and promote a new vision

which can lead to a cup of tea

at the elders circle

and perhaps an honorable way home.

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By Atilla, June 29, 2010 at 5:11 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There is no “win” at the end of the tunnel in Afghanistan.  War is sport
there that people have played and enjoyed for 5000 years.  Alexander
won, Genghis won, England lost, USSR lost.  Rome never got past Persia.

  America won the war years ago when it defeated Al Qaida and drove
the Taliban into Pakistan.  We could have declared victory before
Operation Ananconda and left.  There is still a chance to take a draw
there if we are not as stupid as we act.  It is either that or flatten the
cities and kill as many as possible and march out singing victory.

Obama is weak and decides like Thoth by weighing a feather and
picking the political path.  He could not end the war any more than he
could wear a flag pin until his political nose told him the odds were
acceptable.  Not a leader - a weak politician.

It is very sad to see more young people die and $billions spent to kill
people who will rise back again and again like they have for thousands
of years to play at war in Afghanistan.  The War God’s Stadium.

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By balkas, June 29, 2010 at 5:01 pm Link to this comment

Pfaff’s account seems to rest on a conclusion that US did not know that the grounds to attack iraq were fictional.
A much more plausible conclusion appears [even if saddam was manufacturing n-bombs]that US wanted bases there and nothing else wld do.

One cannot dichotomize NWs [nukes]into threatening or non-threatening; all pose a threat of some kind. So, had iraq possesed NWs, and iraq being a threat like any other land with NWs, it cannot be a casus belli because by that rationalizing US, China, et al shld also be attacked.

Actually, the stronger a country with NWs is, a fortiori is its threat more dangerous and likely be a first strike.

So all countries with NWs shld be attacked if we’d use that rationalization.
His analyses also clashes with an universal: all wars are waged for land and solely for land. tnx

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By gerard, June 29, 2010 at 4:45 pm Link to this comment

It is so sad to watch the U.S. beating this dead horse of war from place to place in the Middle East, blindly pursuing false ideals and questionable goals having to do with assuring the “rich countries” run by international corporations that they can exploit what’s left of the world’s energy resources, most of which will produce emissions that will guarantee the destruction of human life on earth.
  Whew!  Take a breath!  The multisyllabic palaver of conquest leads to this kind of rhetorical excess in an effort to “frame” our out-of-control situation so that some people can do something about some of it.
  “Asymetrical warfare”  “collateral damage”  “clash of civilizations”  “end of history”  “carefully calibrated assault”  “enhanced interrogation techniques” “socio-polital landscapes” “behavior management” “reconstruction of infrastructure—Give me a break!
  Pfaff says “The only solution is for Obama to keep his promise to leave Afghanistan in 2011—at the latest.” 
  Is it really only a case of “Obama keeping his promise?”  Or does it depend upon a host of other factors having to do with who controls what? Who does what he/she can and who stands by and watches?
  How much can Obama count on masses of ordinary people getting out in the streets to support him?
  How will the over-weaponized “security” forces be kept in check?
  How can the decision for pulling out be used to effect coming elections? 
  Where are the civilian jobs for tens of thousands of returning veterans?
  Where is the community support for getting the country off its media-fed exceptionalism kick?
  Where are the peace-makers willing to take a public stand in support of a new approach to justice, diplomacy, negotiation and the obligation to help mend the destruction we have caused in third world countries? 
  Where is the moral and psychological backbone to “give peace a chance”?
  I know it’s out there somewhere, in the hearts and minds of millions of ordinary Americans, but at the moment most of us are living in blind faith, conjuring up the “evidence of things unseen.”

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