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Andrew Bacevich: Uncle Sam, Global Gangster

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Petraeus offered a formula for restoring a semblance of order to countries reduced to chaos as a result of round one.  Order might permit the United States to extricate itself while maintaining some semblance of having met its policy objectives.  This became the operative definition of victory.

The formal name for the formula that Petraeus devised was counterinsurgency, or COIN.  Rather than trying to defeat the enemy, COIN sought to facilitate the emergence of a viable and stable nation-state.  This was the stated aim of the "surge" in Iraq ordered by President George W. Bush at the end of 2006. 

With Petraeus presiding, violence in that country did decline precipitously. Whether the relationship was causal or coincidental remains the subject of controversy.  Still, Petraeus's apparent success persuaded some observers that counterinsurgency on a global scale -- GCOIN, they called it -- should now form the basis for U.S. national security strategy.  Here, they argued, was an approach that could definitively extract the United States from the WFKATGWOT, while offering victory of a sort.  Rather than employing "shock and awe" to liberate the Islamic world, U.S. forces would apply counterinsurgency doctrine to pacify it.

The task of demonstrating the validity of COIN beyond Iraq fell to General Stanley McChrystal, appointed with much fanfare in 2009 to command U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.  Press reports celebrated McChrystal as another Petraeus, the ideal candidate to replicate the achievements already credited to "King David." 

McChrystal's ascendency came at a moment when a cult of generalship gripped Washington.  Rather than technology being the determinant of success as Rumsfeld had believed, the key was to put the right guy in charge and then let him run with things.  Political figures on both sides of the aisle fell all over themselves declaring McChrystal the right guy for Afghanistan.  Pundits of all stripes joined the chorus.

Once installed in Kabul, the general surveyed the situation and, to no one's surprise, announced that "success demands a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign."  Implementing that campaign would necessitate an Afghan "surge" mirroring the one that had seemingly turned Iraq around.  In December 2009, albeit with little evident enthusiasm, President Barack Obama acceded to his commander's request (or ultimatum).  The U.S. troop commitment to Afghanistan rapidly increased.

Here things began to come undone.  Progress toward reducing the insurgency or improving the capacity of Afghan security forces was -- by even the most generous evaluation -- negligible.  McChrystal made promises -- like meeting basic Afghan needs with "government in a box, ready to roll in" -- that he proved utterly incapable of keeping.  Relations with the government of President Hamid Karzai remained strained.  Those with neighboring Pakistan, not good to begin with, only worsened.  Both governments expressed deep resentment at what they viewed as high-handed American behavior that killed or maimed noncombatants with disturbing frequency.

To make matters worse, despite all the hype, McChrystal turned out to be miscast -- manifestly the wrong guy for the job.  Notably, he proved unable to grasp the need for projecting even some pretence of respect for the principle of civilian control back in Washington.  By the summer of 2010, he was out -- and Petraeus was back in.

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In Washington (if not in Kabul), Petraeus's oversized reputation quelled the sense that with McChrystal's flame-out Afghanistan might be a lost cause.  Surely, the most celebrated soldier of his generation would repeat his Iraq magic, affirming his own greatness and the continued viability of COIN. 

Alas, this was not to be.  Conditions in Afghanistan during Petraeus's tenure in command improved -- if that's even the word -- only modestly.  The ongoing war met just about anyone's definition of a quagmire.  With considerable understatement, a 2011 National Intelligence Estimate called it a "stalemate." Soon, talk of a "comprehensive counterinsurgency" faded.  With the bar defining success slipping ever lower, passing off the fight to Afghan security forces and hightailing it for home became the publicly announced war aim.

That job remained unfinished when Petraeus himself headed for home, leaving the army to become CIA director.  Although Petraeus was still held in high esteem, his departure from active duty left the cult of generalship looking more than a little the worse for wear.  By the time General John Allen succeeded Petraeus -- thereby became the eighth U.S. officer appointed to preside over the ongoing Afghan War -- no one believed that simply putting the right guy in charge was going to produce magic.  On that inclusive note, round two of the WFKATGWOT ended.

The Vickers Era

Round 3: Assassination.  Unlike Donald Rumsfeld or David Petraeus, Michael Vickers has not achieved celebrity status.  Yet more than anyone else in or out of uniform, Vickers, who carries the title Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, deserves recognition as the emblematic figure of the WFKATGWOT's round three.  His low-key, low-profile persona meshes perfectly with this latest evolution in the war's character.  Few people outside of Washington know who he is, which is fitting indeed since he presides over a war that few people outside of Washington are paying much attention to any longer.

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With the retirement of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Vickers is the senior remaining holdover from George W. Bush's Pentagon.  His background is nothing if not eclectic.  He previously served in U.S. Army Special Forces and as a CIA operative.  In that guise, he played a leading role in supporting the Afghan mujahedeen in their war against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s.  Subsequently, he worked in a Washington think tank and earned a PhD in strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University (dissertation title: "The Structure of Military Revolutions"). 

Even during the Bush era, Vickers never subscribed to expectations that the United States could liberate or pacify the Islamic world.  His preferred approach to the WFKATGWOT has been simplicity itself. "I just want to kill those guys," he says -- "those guys" referring to members of al-Qaeda. Kill the people who want to kill Americans and don't stop until they are all dead: this defines the Vickers strategy, which over the course of the Obama presidency has supplanted COIN as the latest variant of U.S. strategy. 

The Vickers approach means acting aggressively to eliminate would-be killers wherever they might be found, employing whatever means are necessary.  Vickers "tends to think like a gangster," one admirer comments. "He can understand trends then change the rules of the game so they are advantageous for your side."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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