The reappointment of General David Patraeus as commander of forces in Afghanistan places the general on an extremely high political plateau that makes it more difficult to discuss alternatives to the failed counter-insurgency strategy, and places too much influence in the hands of the Pentagon on decisions involving war and peace. President Obama recognized the McChrystal affair as a challenge to civilian control and leadership, but the appointment of Petraeus enhances the political power of the military and could become an obstacle to the president's exercise of civilian control in the near term. Too many influence people view Petraeus as the answer to our Afghan problems; he isn't.
The imbalance in civilian-military influence is far more threatening to the interests of the United States than any developments in Afghanistan. President Nixon's ending of the draft has created a professional military, which has fostered the very cultural behavior that General McChrystal demonstrated in his contempt for civilian leadership. The Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986 created regional commanders-in-chief (CINCs) who expanded the martial reach of the United States in the post-Cold War world; these CINCs have become more influential than U.S. ambassadors and assistant secretaries of state in sensitive Third World areas. The Act created a powerful chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, during Desert Storm in 1991, the chairman often ignored the secretary of defense and personally briefed war plans to the president. It is noteworthy that the Act passed the Senate without one vote of opposition.
Special operations officers are even more conservative than their traditional brethren, and it is noteworthy that the nickname for all commanders of the Joint Special Operations Command, like McChrystal, is "The Pope." Ironically, McChrystal is a registered Democrat, a social liberal, and an Obama supporter in the 2008 election.
Key congressional figures and influential journalists are already calling for the resignation of the president's representative in Afghanistan, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who provided the White House with two important cables in November 2009 warning against any additional military deployments to Afghanistan. Eikenberry's advice was lapidary: he warned that Karzai was not an "adequate strategic partner" and that his government lacked the "political will or capacity to carry out basic tasks of governance;" he said that we have "overestimated the ability of Afghan security forces to take over by 2013...and underestimated how long it will take to restore or establish civilian government;" and he argued that "more troops won't end the insurgency as long as Pakistan sanctuaries remain...and Pakistan views its strategic interests as best served by a weak neighbor." He bluntly argued against a premature decision regarding a troop increase, favoring "alternatives beyond strictly military counterinsurgency efforts within Afghanistan."
Eight months later, the situation in Afghanistan has worsened, and Eikenberry's diagnosis has become more prescient. Even McChrystal has said that there's no way we can kill our way out of Afghanistan. And there is no way that U.S. forces will be able to build a civilian government in Afghanistan and then mediate between the government and the Afghan people, objectives that are central to the Petraeus-McChrystal counter-insurgency strategy.
It is time for President Obama to remind the Pentagon that decisions regarding national security must be made by civilian officials and that the service academies and the war colleges must stress the central importance of civilian control. During my 18 years at the National War College, various commandants steadily cut back the number of hours devoted to the U.S. political process, and made it more difficult to introduce contrarian lecturers who understood the importance of disagreement and diversity of perspective. The military culture may require an authoritarian and hierarchical structure, but it must understand the importance and sanctity of the egalitarian and individualistic values of U.S. democracy.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower's profound and prophetic Farewell Address in 1961 warned against the excesses of the military-industrial complex, and he also expressed the hope that his successors at the White House understood the demands of the military and the necessity for limiting and restraining those demands. Unfortunately, our most recent presidents in the wake of the end of the Cold War have not been willing to limit the influence of the military and have placed too much power in the hands of the Pentagon. President Obama must take note.
Originally published on Truthout.org