How the man who demonstrated such little respect for the clear division of civilian and military authority (though his offenses were no more gratuitous, and far less pernicious in the long-run, than those of General Petraeus, who rises ever higher with each reshuffle of the U.S. national security team) is able to deliver this prediction with a straight face is beyond me. Particularly when the Bush and Obama administrations have changed their goals more often even than their generals.
McChrystal is right to recognise the “frightening simplistic” view with which the U.S. went blithely to war in Afghanistan, and thereafter Afghanistan and Pakistan. But he and others are less willing to recognise the fundamental flaws behind their efforts to turn-around the U.S. war in South Asia (which has now stretched on longer than our equally ill-judged war in Vietnam): armed invasions of other people’s countries aimed at restructuring society, its culture and values, and the infrastructure of a state, working from an ‘us versus them’ premise will not succeed, particularly when the arrogant idealism of nation-building runs head-long into the national security imperatives that underlie the Obama administration’s escalation of the war.
The entire enterprise is as morally fraught as the logic behind the war as a national security safeguard. Over 6,000 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, more than twice as many as died on September 11, now over ten years ago. We don’t know for certain how many Afghans and Iraqis have died in those wars, but the numbers run into the hundreds of thousands. Al Qaeda has expanded into Iraq, and every bomb we drop, every ‘insurgent’ we kill, every wedding we bomb, every raid we stage is a boon to anyone who has a grievance against the United States. After all, if we stopped intervening, if we didn’t lead military attacks on other countries as we have been doing with increasingly intensification through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we wouldn’t have enemies around the world. Because people, whatever the idiots in the Republican Party tell us, don’t “hate us for our freedoms” or our “way of life”. This insular, illogical view is crippling our ability to remake our international policy and re-orient our priorities.
It’s almost hard to remember a time when our wars were making front page news. But they mobilised a powerful constituency that almost defeated Bush in 2004, swept Congress in 2006, and outraged millions of people (my grandmother, mother and wife of veterans, who had been voting for Republicans since the Roosevelt era, voted for Democrats in 2004 because of the war, and for Obama in 2008 because of his critique of the war in Iraq). Today the economy dominates the news, and the bloody, immoral and costly campaigns that we are waging in Iraq, in Afghanistan and Pakistan and more subtly in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, go almost unremarked. They, like the drones that do ever more of our killing, and the sense of morality which should direct our policy, are operating on autopilot.
We have McChrystal and Petraeus, among others, to thank for that. They made the wars, on the verge of provoking a real political tipping-point, and the reconsideration of our national security strategy that one might have expected to come with that, acceptable once again. They did so by promoting Counterinsurgency (COIN) and what is generally called a “hearts and minds” approach. This technical approach to war, which is every bit as much about killing and maiming other people and destroying their homes, their crops, their buildings and their social infrastructure as the 'old war' was, allowed President Obama a way out. He could ignore his constituency, fulfil a campaign promise to focus on Afghanistan (which didn’t have to mean escalating the war there), win national security plaudits from the neocons who are responsible for so much mindless bloodshed, and put the Republican Party on its back-foot.
“Hearts and Minds” sounds nice, but it is somewhat misleading. It doesn’t refer to a serious dialogue, an attempt to affect a genuine meeting of minds, or to understand the other sides’ perspectives. It means that we plan to bring Afghans around to our way of thinking, whether they like it or not. As the memorable Doc Sarvis declared in The Monkey Wrench Gang, “Grab ‘em by the testicles, and their hearts and minds will follow”. Crude, yes, but it sums up the approach of the U.S. administration, and allows us to reconcile the term with the seemingly contradictory surge in bombing, the use of drones, the expansion of military conflict into Pakistan and the use of night-time house raids and assassinations.
So now Obama’s Wars (for so they are now) rage on unchecked. Ron Paul is the only presidential candidate from the two major parties to muster up the courage to critique the wars and the military industrial complex which backs them. They will almost certainly not feature as prominent issues in our national election next year, even though they are closely tied to the economic, social and political structures and interests which will be hotly debated.
And so we will soldier on (or those in our ill-served military will), thousands of people will die unnecessarily, we will amass enormous debt, we will enrich weapons companies, and we will continue to make enemies around the world, all because we lack the willingness to connect the dots, criticise our leaders, and vote with both our feet and ballots accordingly.
But take heart...only ten more years! so General McChrystal tells us.