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Much of the time, our wars may hardly exist for us, but in the age of celebrity, our generals do -- exactly because they become celebrities. When Barack Obama picked Stanley McChrystal as his Afghan war commander, the general was greeted by the media as little short of a savior. He was, we were told, superhumanly fit,utterly austere(eating only one meal a day), and -- strangely for the man who was to oversee a protect-the-people counterinsurgency war -- had spent his professional life in the deepest shadows of counter-terror warfare at the head of groups of hunter-killer special operations forces. His was the darkest of legacies, but he was greeted like Superman.
Reading the Michael Hastings Rolling Stonepiece that unseated him, you can sense in the contempt that McChrystal and his aides (many former special ops officers) express for the Obama administration and its civilian representatives in Afghanistan just what a blunt instrument the man was. No leader or group speaking that way, or that crudely, in private could help but exude similar feelings in public. McChrystal was, in fact, always a divided man, caught between his counter-terror past -- he significantly increased special operations units in Afghanistan and sent them out to hunt Taliban mid-level leaders (and in the process kill civilians) -- and his newer fealty to counterinsurgency which led him to institute rules of "courageous restraint" that left American ground troops grumbling.
While the president officially picked McChrystal back in 2009, he was, in reality, the choice of Bush's favorite general, Centcom commander and now new Afghan war commander, General David Petraeus. So the present White House line-- "This is a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy" -- couldn't be more accurate. There have already been several moments in the Obama presidency when a daring president might have changed the course of the war and begun winding it down. In March 2009, when he first "surged" in Afghanistan, again at West Point that December, and now with the Petraeus appointment, Obama has instead chosen the route slated to give him the least trouble domestically, and so doubled down on the war. The first two missed moments have already led, via chaos and failure in Afghanistan, to the third, in which the president dethroned a military demi-god for a man genuinely worshipped in Washington.
David Petraeus is nota blunt instrument. He's the most politically savvy military man of his generation. It says something about our moment in American war-making, however, that the main claim to fame of the four-star general who is treated like the Ulysses S. Grant of the twenty-first century has nothing to do with victory. He simply had a hand in holding off an ignominious American defeat in Iraq or, as the New York Timesrecently put it, "helping to pull Iraq back from the edge." And not even all that far back.
With Petraeus, Obama again took the easier road in the immediate moment. What will he do, though, in 2011 as the presidential election campaign gears up, if his chosen general, beloved of the right,asks for more troops? Journalist Robert Dreyfuss, who runs The Dreyfuss Report at the Nationmagazine website and is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, surveys the IED-cratered American path stretching into an ominous Afghan future. (And don't miss Dreyfuss in the latest TomCast audio interview discussing Obama's war with the military by clicking here, or to download to your iPod,here.)Tom
The Land Where Theories of Warfare Go to Die
Obama, Petraeus, and the Cult of COIN in Afghanistan
By Robert Dreyfuss
Less than a year ago, General David Petraeus saluted smartly and pledged his loyal support for President Obama's decision to start withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan in July 2011. In December, when Obama decided (for the second time in 2009) to add tens of thousands of additional American forces to the war, he also slapped an 18-month deadline on the military to turn the situation around and begin handing security over to the bedraggled Afghan National Army and police. Speaking to the nation from West Point, Obama said that he'd ordered American forces to start withdrawing from Afghanistan at that time.
Here's the exchange, between Obama, Petraeus, and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as reported by Jonathan Alter in his new book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One:
OBAMA: "I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?"
PETRAEUS: "Sir, I'm confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame."
OBAMA: "If you can't do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?"
PETRAEUS: "Yes, sir, in agreement."
MULLEN: "Yes, sir."
That seems unequivocal, doesn't it? Vice President Joe Biden, famously dissed as Joe Bite-Me by one of the now-disgraced aides of General Stanley McChrystal in the Rolling Stone profile that got him fired, seems to think so. Said Biden, again according to Alter: "In July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it."
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