The current imbroglio about General McChrystal, and his and his aides’ comments reported in Rolling Stone is converting the conduct of the war in Afghanistan a human interest story about boys’ locker-room trash talk and a political gab-fest. Which means that we have lost—whatever that means—a war which we cannot win—whatever that means.
For what it is worth, I think that the general’s remarks were motivated by two concerns. One, although he persuaded the President to adopt his strategy and tactics, and provide more troops (30,000 instead of 40,000 but deemed sufficient), he did not accept the President’s policy of an effort limited in purpose and resources, and having a deadline. In short, he either hoped that success would buy an extension or marched off in radical disagreement with the President’s policy. Two, success having eluded him and conditions on the ground deteriorating, he wants to be fired rather than either quit his command or face defeat on his watch.
What did McChrystal do in the war? He signed up for something in which he did not believe and then wanted out when the going got rough and tough. Thus, his and his aide’s name-calling and denigrations of others are the prelude to blame-shifting.
There are more major lessons to be learned from our recent experience with counterinsurgency (“COIN” as it is called) warfare than I have the time or talent to enumerate. I note a few.
First, the Constitutional provision giving civilians control of the military wisely recognizes that warfare involves more than military strength and thus cannot be trusted entirely to generals and admirals. But it also implies that politicians must assess the more-than-military aspects of war before committing to it. The Constitutional provision requiring Congressional approval wisely recognizes that Congress is better positioned than the President to recognize these more-than-military aspects of war. The capacity of Presidents—I have in mind Johnson and Bush—to manipulate Congress into approving hostilities constitutes a serious threat to the democratic enterprise not only abroad, but also at home. The results of such presidential adventurism have been ruin all around.
Second, whatever our reasons for engaging in COIN warfare, we must ensure both that they are congruent with those of the country in which we would engage and that that country wants to “win,” or succeed, as much as we do. We cannot succeed in a war which our putative ally does not want to win.
Three, whatever our strategy or tactics for engaging in COIN warfare, we must ensure that the ally which we assist is representative of and has the respect of its people. We cannot hope to succeed if we are, in fact, assisting a government either corrupt or incompetent. (I note that both the Vietnam War and the Afghanistan War involve leadership more interested in its self-aggrandizement than in securing the country, even the government itself, from its enemies. Generals like Mullen, Petraeus, and McChrystal should have learned these lessons but appear not to have done so. If McChrystal had, he might have said, “Sir, without your strategy and tactics for winning in Kabul, my strategy and tactics cannot win in the field.)
Four, to develop the tag line of “War Games,” the winning move is not to play. The best way to “win a war” is not to fight it but to prevent it. If we have a trillion dollars to fight a war, perhaps we should have a trillion dollars to assist nations develop themselves in ways which, in benefitting themselves and their people, benefit us.
Getting out of Afghanistan will require more courage than staying in. We are good at doubling down on more of the same with no better prospect of a good outcome for anyone. We are bad at cutting our losses (and theirs). But if we call for withdrawal from Afghanistan, we should call for ways to help whatever government emerges restore its country. We have to run the risk that it will bite the hand which now wants to help it.
Such did not happen when “godless communists” routed us from Vietnam; they wanted to be our friends, as they had wanted to be our friends in 1945. We had to fight with those who sought our friendship before we could become friends—not my idea of a smart foreign policy. The parallel to Afghanistan is not so evident, but I think that it is still there. For I think that Afghanistan is more nationalistic than Islamic. Even so, I think that Islam is no more monolithic today than we thought communism was monolithic decades ago. Indonesia is a case in point. So let us deal with Islamic countries one at a time.