Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s greatest contribution to the war in Afghanistan may turn out to be forcing everyone to focus on it. The real news there this week was not Gen. McChrystal’s epic faux pas and dismissal but that 12 soldiers were killed on June 7-8, including five Americans by a roadside bomb, making that “the deadliest 24 hour period this year,” as The Economist noted. Insurgency-related violence was up by 87% in the six months prior to March. Agence France-Presse reported Thursday that NATO forces are experiencing their deadliest month ever.
There have been signal moments in this war since its inception, and we are in the middle of one now.
It has gone on almost nine years. It began rightly, legitimately. On 9/11 we had been attacked, essentially, from Afghanistan, harborer of terrorists. We invaded and toppled the Taliban with dispatch, courage and even, for all our woundedness, brio. We all have unforgettable pictures in our minds. One of mine is the grainy footage of a U.S. cavalry charge, with local tribesman, against a Taliban stronghold. It left me cheering. You too, I bet.
But Washington soon took its eye off the ball, turning its focus and fervor to invading Iraq. Over the years, the problems in Afghanistan mounted. In 2009, amid a growing air of crisis, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates sacked the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan—institutional Army, maybe a little old-style. He was replaced by Gen. McChrystal—special forces background, black ops, an agile and resourceful snake eater. “Politicians love the mystique of these guys,” said a general this week. Snake eaters know it, and wind up being even more colorful, reveling in their ethos of bucking the system.
Last August, Gen. McChrystal produced, and someone leaked, a 66-page report warning of “mission failure.” More troops and new strategy were needed. The strategy, counterinsurgency, was adopted. That was a signal moment within a signal moment, for at the same time the president committed 30,000 more troops and set a deadline for departure, July 2011. The mission on the ground was expanded—counterinsurgency, also known as COIN, is nation building, and nation building is time- and troop-intensive—but the timeline for success was truncated.
COIN is a humane strategy not lacking in shrewdness: Don’t treat the people of a sovereign nation as if they just wandered across your battlefield. Instead, befriend them, consult them, build schools, give them an investment in peace. Only America, and God bless it, would try to take the hell out of war. But the new strategy involved lawyering up, requiring troops to receive permission before they hit targets. Some now-famous cases make clear this has endangered soldiers and damaged morale.
The Afghan government, on which COIN’s success hinges, is corrupt and unstable. That is their political context. But are we fully appreciating the political context of the war at home, in America?
The left doesn’t like this war and will only grow more opposed to it. The center sees that it has gone on longer than Vietnam, and “we’ve seen that movie before.” We’re in an economic crisis; can we afford this war? The right is probably going to start to peel off, not Washington policy intellectuals but people on the ground in America. There are many reasons for this. Their sons and nephews have come back from repeat tours full of doubts as to the possibility of victory, “whatever that is,” as we all now say. There is the brute political fact that the war is now President Obama’s. The blindly partisan will be only too happy to let him stew in it.
Republican leaders such as John McCain are stalwart: This war can be won. But there’s a sense when you watch Mr. McCain that he’s very much speaking for Mr. McCain, and McCainism. Republicans respect this attitude: “Never give in.” But people can respect what they choose not to follow. The other day Sen. Lindsey Graham, in ostensibly supportive remarks, said that Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. McChrystal’s replacement, “is our only hope.” If he can’t pull it out, “nobody can.” That’s not all that optimistic a statement.
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The U.S. military is overstretched in every way, including emotionally and psychologically. The biggest takeaway from a week at U.S. Army War College in 2008 was the exhaustion of the officers. They are tired from repeat deployments, and their families are stretched to the limit, with children reaching 12 and 13 without a father at home.
The president himself is in a parlous position with regard to support, which means with regard to his ability to persuade, to be believed, to be followed. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll shows more people disapprove of Mr. Obama’s job performance than approve.
When he ran for president, Mr. Obama blasted Iraq but called Afghanistan the “good war.” This was in line with public opinion, and as a young Democratic progressive who hadn’t served in the military, he had to kick away from the old tie-dyed-hippie-lefty-peacenik hangover that dogs the Democratic Party to this day, even as heartless-warlike-bigot-in-plaid-golf-shorts dogs the Republicans. In 2009 he ordered a top-to-bottom review of Afghanistan. In his valuable and deeply reported book “The Promise,” Jonathan Alter offers new information on the review. A reader gets the sense it is meant to be reassuring—they’re doing a lot of thinking over there!—but for me it was not. The president seems to have thought government experts had answers, or rather reliable and comprehensive information that could be weighed and fully understood. But in Washington, agency analysts and experts don’t have answers, really. They have product. They have factoids. They have free-floating data. They have dots in a pointillist picture, but they’re not artists, they’re dot-makers.
More crucially, the president asked policy makers, in Mr. Alter’s words, “If the Taliban took Kabul and controlled Afghanistan, could it link up with Pakistan’s Taliban and threaten command and control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons?” The answer: Quite possibly yes. Mr. Alter: “Early on, the President eliminated withdrawal (from Afghanistan) as an option, in part because of a new classified study on what would happen to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal if the Islamabad government fell to the Taliban.”
That is always the heart-stopper in any conversation about Afghanistan, terrorists and Pakistan’s nukes. But the ins and outs of this question—what we know, for instance, about the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, and its connections to terrorists—are not fully discussed. Which means a primary argument in the president’s arsenal is denied him.
It is within the context of all this mess that—well, Gen. Petraeus a week and a half ago, in giving Senate testimony on Afghanistan, appeared to faint. And Gen. McChrystal suicide-bombed his career. One of Gen. McChrystal’s aides, in the Rolling Stone interview, said that if Americans “started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular.”
Maybe we should find out. Gen. Petraeus’s confirmation hearings are set for next week. He is a careful man, but this is no time for discretion. What is needed now is a deep, even startling, even brute candor. The country can take it. It’s taken two wars. So can Gen. Petraeus. He can’t be fired because both his predecessors were, and because he’s Petraeus. In that sense he’s fireproof. Which is not what he’ll care about. He cares about doing what he can to make America safer in the world. That means being frank about a war that can be prosecuted only if the American people support it. They have focused. They’re ready to hear.