By Scott Ritter
Editor’s Note: We’re re-posting this column by Scott Ritter as President Obama announces that he is sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
There is a curious phenomenon taking place in the American media at the moment: the lionization of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the American military commander in Afghanistan. Although he has taken a few lumps for playing politics with the White House, McChrystal has generally been sold to the American public as a “Zen warrior,” a counterinsurgency genius who, if simply left to his own devices, will be able to radically transform the ongoing debacle that is Afghanistan into a noble victory that will rank as one of the greatest political and military triumphs of modern history. McChrystal’s resume and persona (a former commander of America’s special operations forces, a tireless athlete and a scholar) have been breathlessly celebrated in several interviews and articles. Reporters depict him as an ascetic soldier who spouts words of wisdom to rival Confucius, Jesus and Muhammad.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent Gen. McChrystal to “fix” the war in Afghanistan in the way that his boss, that earlier military prophet Gen. David Petraeus, “fixed” Iraq. Whether by accident or design, McChrystal’s mission became a cause célèbre of sorts for an American media starved for good news, even if entirely fabricated, coming out of Afghanistan. One must remember that the general has accomplished little of note during his short tenure to date as the military commander in Afghanistan. His entire reputation is built around the potential to turn things around in Afghanistan. And to do this, McChrystal has said he needs time, and 40,000-plus additional American troops. There are currently around 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. McChrystal’s request would raise that number to around 110,000 troops – the same number as the Soviets had deployed in Afghanistan at the height of their failed military adventure some 20 years ago.
McChrystal, or more accurately, his staff, has authored a not-so-secret report that outlines the reasoning behind this massive increase in American military involvement in Afghanistan. Rightly noting that the American-led effort is currently failing, McChrystal argues that only a massive infusion of U.S. troops, and a corresponding “surge” of American civilians, can achieve the stability necessary to transform Afghanistan from the failed state it is today. A viable nation capable of self-government, the new Afghanistan could maintain internal security so that terrorist organizations like al-Qaida will not be able to take root, flourish and once again threaten American security from the sanctuary of a lawless land. This concept certainly looks good on paper and plays well in the editorial section. And why shouldn’t it? It touches on all the romantic notions of America as liberator and defender of the oppressed. The problem is that the assumptions made in the McChrystal report are so far removed from reality as to be ludicrous.
McChrystal operates under the illusion that American military power can provide a shield from behind which Afghanistan can remake itself into a viable modern society. He has deluded himself and others into believing that the people of Afghanistan want to be part of such a grand social experiment, and furthermore that they will tolerate the United States being in charge. The reality of Afghan history, culture and society argue otherwise. The Taliban, once a defeated entity in the months following the initial American military incursion into Afghanistan, are resurgent and growing stronger every day. The principle source of the Taliban’s popularity is the resentment of the Afghan people toward the American occupation and the corrupt proxy government of Hamid Karzai. There is nothing an additional 40,000 American troops will be able to do to change that basic equation. The Soviets tried and failed. They deployed 110,000 troops, operating on less restrictive lines of communication and logistical supply than the United States. They built an Afghan army of some 45,000 troops. They operated without the constraints of American rules of engagement. They slaughtered around a million Afghans. And they lost, for the simple reason that the people of Afghanistan did not want them, or their Afghan proxies.
Some pundits and observers make note of the fact that the Afghan people were able to prevail over the Soviets only because of billions of dollars of U.S. aid, which together with similar funding from Saudi Arabia and the logistical support of Pakistan, allowed the Afghan resistance to coalesce, grow and ultimately defeat the Soviets and their Afghan allies. They note that there is no equivalent source of empowerment for the Taliban in Afghanistan today. But they are wrong. The Taliban receive millions of dollars from sympathetic sources in the Middle East, in particular from Saudi Arabia, and they operate not only from within Afghanistan, but also out of safe havens inside Pakistan.
Indeed, one of the unique aspects of the Afghan conflict is the degree to which it has expanded into Pakistan, making any military solution in one theater contingent on military victory in the other. But the reality is that the more one employs military force in either Afghanistan or Pakistan, the more one strengthens the cause and resources of the Islamic insurgents in both places. Pashtunistan, once a fanciful notion built around the concept of a united Pashtun people (the population in eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan are primarily drawn from Pashtun tribes), has become a de facto reality. The decision by the British in 1897 to separate the Pashtun through the artificial device of the so-called Durand Line (which today constitutes the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan) has been exposed today as a futile effort to undermine tribal links. No amount of military force can reverse this.
Thus the solution itself becomes the problem, thereby creating a never-ending circular conflict which has the United States expending more and more resources to resolve a situation that has nothing to do with the reality on the ground in Afghanistan, and everything to do with crafting a politically viable salve for what is in essence a massive self-inflicted wound. It is the proverbial dog chasing after its own tail, a frustrating experience made even more so by the fact that any massive commitment of troops brings with it the fatal attachment of national pride, individual hubris and, worst of all, the scourge of domestic American politics, so that by the time this dog bites its tail, it will be so blinded by artificialities that rather than recognize its mistake, it will instead proceed to consume itself. In the case of Afghanistan, our consumption will be measured in the lives of American servicemen and women, national treasure, national honor, and, of course the lives of countless Afghan dead and wounded.
The manner in which McChrystal has peddled his plan for Afghanistan to the American media, and to Congress, may be politically savvy. It is certainly insubordinate. The decision to employ American military power is the sole prerogative of the American president. A general may offer advice, but any effort to engage the machinery of politics to pressure a sitting president defies the basic constitutional tenet of civilian control over the military. President Obama, once a constitutional law professor, should know as much, and would do well to severely reprimand McChrystal for his actions. Or better yet, Obama should fire McChrystal and replace him with someone who respects the rule of law and the chain of command.
Obama may have won the Nobel Peace Prize, but if he allows himself to be bullied into supporting McChrystal’s foray into Afghanistan, he will reveal himself as the worst kind of warmonger. True, he didn’t invent the Afghan quagmire. That honor resides with George W. Bush, who also is to blame for the American fiasco in Iraq. But history will be surprisingly gentle toward America’s 43rd president. Bush will share the blame for his calamitous military decisions with the mistaken policies of previous administrations, a compliant Congress, headstrong advisers, servile intelligence agencies and, of course, the shock of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Bush will be seen more as a useful idiot than a ruthless ideologue. Obama, with his obvious intelligence, soaring rhetorical skills and Nobel credentials, does not readily fit such a characterization. If he decides to reinforce failure in Afghanistan by dispatching tens of thousands more American troops to that disaster, America’s 44th president will cement himself as a grand fraud, a hawk hiding in dove feathers. Given his potential for doing good, one clearly would not want such a scenario to play out.
The president’s lack of military experience screams out when he calls America’s involvement in Afghanistan a “good war.” He would have been better off trying to make the case for a justifiable war, or even a necessary war, but to label a process that brings about the death and injury of thousands as “good” makes me wonder about Obama’s fitness to be commander in chief. His seeming inexperience on national security affairs and foreign policy leave him vulnerable to domestic political pressures that emanate from these arenas. The president does possess the vision to see a world in which America stands side by side with other nations as an equal, operating with a shared notion of due process and respect for the rule of law, but that doesn’t square with any decision to deploy more troops to Afghanistan. Expanding the war in Afghanistan will lend credence to the central worry about Obama: that, at the end of the day, this man of vision might in fact be little more than an Illinois politician who is willing to barter away American life, treasure and good will for political gain on the domestic front. And, in doing so, it will undermine his noble vision of an America “resetting” its relationship with the world following eight years of unilateralist militarism.
A true leader, one with substance and gravitas, would be able to stand up to the combined pressure of the military, the right-wing of Congress and the American media. He would draw the correct conclusions from the lessons of history, which prove again and again that Afghanistan is not a problem that can be solved by foreign military intervention. The fact that Obama might be compelled to alleviate the political pressure he is receiving from these sources by condemning America to another decade of death and destruction in Afghanistan and, most probably, Pakistan, reinforces any perception of his weakness as a national leader.
Afghanistan has, over the centuries, earned its reputation as the graveyard of empires. Just ask the Greeks, Mongols, British and Russians. If Barack Obama ultimately agrees to dispatch more American troops to Afghanistan, he will ensure not only that America will add its name to the list of those who have failed in their effort to conquer the unconquerable, but also that his name will join the ranks of those leaders throughout history who succumbed to the temptations of hubris when given the choice between war and peace. The Nobel committee will have failed in its gambit to motivate America’s 44th president to embrace the mantle of peacemaker, and the American people will be left to sort through the detritus of war brought on by yet another failed president.
Of course, the future is not yet set in stone. The decision to dispatch more troops, although the subject of much rumor and speculation, has been delayed pending the final dispensation of Afghanistan’s controversial presidential election. One can only hope that President Obama will take advantage of this timely “pause” to reconsider his options regarding Afghanistan beyond the single-minded rush to reinforce a current policy the U.S. military has acknowledged as having gone nowhere in the eight years of American military engagement.
Vice President Joe Biden had earlier proposed a policy course that would have de-emphasized military engagement with the Taliban, focusing instead on rooting out the forces of al-Qaida still operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Obama was reportedly not sold on Biden’s thinking when it was first presented last March. Perhaps now, upon reflection, the president will do the right thing and reduce America’s military involvement in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, either along the lines proposed by Vice President Biden, or through some other mechanism. There is no military solution to the problems facing the United States today in Afghanistan, and thus the correct course of action is to de-militarize the situation by reducing, not expanding, America’s military presence.
Clearly Gen. Stanley McChrystal is not the man for this task. He should be replaced by someone within the ranks of the U.S. military who shares Obama’s vision of peace, and with it the need to redefine the mission in South Asia. The legitimate requirements of American national security will not be satisfied by any massive military commitment to the region. Hopefully, President Obama will recognize this fact and get out. That would be a sign of greatness, and present to the American people and the rest of the world a leader worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Scott Ritter is a former Marine intelligence officer, chief U.N. weapons inspector and the author of numerous books on foreign policy.
AP / David Guttenfelder
U.S. Marines walk through the sand inside Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.