General McChrystal’s insubordinate but perfectly accurate words disqualified him from continuing to command U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Obama is a wimp, Holbrooke is a fool, and Biden is marooned in the Cold War. Still, if you take the king’s shilling and you must do the king’s bidding, and do it silently. The problem of McChrystral is over and will have no impact on the Afghan War. That war was lost more than a year ago by Obama, Biden, Holbrooke, McChrystal, and Petraeus and their fantasy counterinsurgency policy.
Four months after the first field test of their policy in a place called Majrah District in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province the forces of the U.S.-led coalition are still fighting an enemy they predicted would be easily removed. It has, however, succeeded in reopening the local market, improving the irrigation system, and building miles of new roads. What they have utterly failed to do is what the counterinsurgency experts — especially two men named John Nagl and David Kilcullen — asserted would be easy to do; namely, by “protecting the people against the Taliban” Western forces would win hearts and minds and thereby defeat the small number of Afghans who were Taliban extremists. This failure should come as a surprise to no one.
As a timeless truism one cannot find a better example than the phrase: “Afghans hate and will not tolerate their country being occupied by foreigner infidel.” This is verifiable over almost 24 centuries of history by referring to the Afghan experiences of Alexander the Great, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union. It took varying periods for the Afghans to get rid of each occupier — the Greeks were particularly tough to root out as Alexander created Greek colonies in the country — but in time each was defeated and left with its tail between its legs. And so will we.
The really wonderful thing about those who designed and pushed the current counterinsurgency policy in Afghanistan is that reality and facts have no impact whatsoever on their fervor for failure. While U.S. military forces and their allies have done virtually nothing to defeat the Taliban, other Afghan groups, and al-Qaeda — the military’s preening over drone kills comes down to merely a body count — they have succeeded admirably in those things experts like Nagl and Kilcullen tell us mean ultimately victory for the West. More than 3 million more Afghan kids are in school now than in 2001. We have seen numerous Afghan elections; hundreds of miles of roads have been rebuilt; electricity is more generally available; there is more potable water and better primary health care; and the Soviet-destroyed irrigation systems are bein rebuilt. And none of it matters a lick.
As the positive trend line for these “hearts-and-mines” operations has steadily risen in the last several years, the positive trend line for the Taliban-led insurgency has risen even more sharply. The Taliban, its allies, and like-minded groups are now operating throughout Afghanistan, a marked geographic expansion of the war. U.S.-NATO casualties are rising sharply, the Taliban and others strike in the capital of Kabul at their pleasure; and Karzai’s government has a constituency only among those who can steal funds from the United states and other donor countries and/or profit from the heroin industry. The reality, quite simply, is that as the Nagl-Kilcullen list of indicators of victory in Afghanistan has been accomplished, the insurgents have become more popular among, supported by, or acquiesced in by the rural Afghan population.
Why is this case? Well let us go back to the above-mentioned truism: “Afghans do not like being occupied by foreigners.” Add to that Mao’s equally venerable truism that an insurgency dies without popular support, but cannot be killed if it has it, and you see what Obama, Biden, Holbrooke, McChrystal, Petreaus, Nagl, and Kilcullen have given America — utter failure, a thousand dead and untold numbers of wounded U.S. service personnel, and gargantuan waste of U.S. financial resources. Not to mention putting Pakistan on the road to implosion.
So by sending Petraeus to Afghanistan in McChystal’s place, Obama has decided to keep a disastrous counterinsurgency policy in place. He has simply exchanged an indiscreet man who preferred to see our soldiers and Marines killed than the enemy and its civilian supporters, with a man whose attitude is the same but is a past master at selling snake oil. The media, for example, still refer to the “Petraeaus victory” in Iraq although it is now in a slow-but-sure mode of unraveling. Instead of killing the enemy and his civilian supporters, Petraeus will keep flogging the foolishness about “protecting the people from the insurgents,” even as those people we claim to be a protecting are supporting those who are killing our soldiers and Marines.
All of this apparently is satisfactory to President Obama’s administration — as it was to Mr. Bush’s — and to most senior U.S. general officers; you know, those vague shadows of their old-fashioned predecessors who went to war to achieve military victory as quickly as possible and placed top priority on bringing home alive as many of their troops they could.
Call me a romantic, but I suspect — more accurately hope — that there are this morning Marine generals brooding over the Afghan issue in their bastions of sanity at Quantico, Camp Lejeune, and Camp Pendelton. These men and women know — perhaps uniquely in today’s U.S. military — that war means fighting, and fighting means killing, and that any other approach to war means wasted resources and lives, and will yield nothing but defeat and the need to fight the same war over again. This is why Obama should have sent a Marine to replace McChrystal. This is also why he did not.