The Pope Mouths Off


The trouble with appointing Stanley McChrystal to run the Af-Pak war was always his temperament and his history. He is a driven man, strong-headed, amazingly disciplined, extremely able in a limited fashion - and clearly unused to compromise or getting along with people as powerful as he is. Diplomat he is not. As head of JSOC, moreover, he has always regarded himself as above political management, running a part of the military that seems at times to answer to no-one, and that, under Bush and Cheney was unleashed to do whatever it wanted, including, of course, brutal torture in the field, condoned from the very top.

These qualities might have seemed appealing at first for Afghanistan. Here you had a former torturer/badass who had learned by brutal experience that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be won that way. Converted to counter-insurgency as a philosophy, he was an apostate from the Bush-Cheney approach of "kill, bomb and torture until they embrace human rights" school.

Alas, you can't take an entire philosophy of warfare and reverse it easily, especially when your own men were among the most brutal and badass of the bunch. So you find comments like this from McChrystal's men:

"Bottom line?" says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers' lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing."

"Every real soldier." You see: there are real Americans and fake Americans; and there are real soldiers and fake ones. Let's just put it this way about the legacy of McChrystal's JSOC: you cannot imagine a soldier who had worked for Petraeus for a long time saying such a thing.

Alas, as is also ironically the case, there is no way counter-insurgency can work in the tenth year of occupation, without commitment to another thirty years, instead of eighteen months. And there is no way it can work without a viable and trusted central government. But Obama did not have the intellectual or political guts to walk away, and was trapped by early campaign announcements in favor of the "good war" in Afghanistan. It may well have been the good war in 2002; but that didn't make it a winnable war in 2009.

And so everyone without a personal or ideological or partisan stake in this knows the war McChrystal claimed he alone could win is doomed. It's in that context that I found the barbs directed at Biden the most revealing:

The article describes a conversation in which General McChrystal and an aide talk about Mr. Biden. Mr. Biden is known to have opposed the decision to escalate the war, preferring instead a slimmed-down plan focused on containing terrorism.

“Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” General McChrystal jokes.

“Biden?” suggests a top adviser. “Did you say ‘Bite me?’ ”

It doesn't take a genius to see this contempt as rooted in the growing recognition among many and the growing fear among the McChrystal clique that Biden has been right all along, that the McChrystal strategy was a product of hope over experience, and that the arrogance that drove it was part of what had long been wrong with the conduct of both tragically flawed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You see the same fear in McChrystal's contempt for Eikenberry, who took the Biden position:

“He’s one that covers his flanks for the history books,” General McChrystal is quoted as saying. “Now, if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’ ”

Then this second remark about Eikenberry that helps remind us of why McChrystal was a Cheney darling:

"Who's he going to dinner with?" I ask one of [McChrystal's] aides. "Some French minister," the aide tells me. "It's fucking gay."

What this reveals to me is the incoherence of the Obama position on Afghanistan. We cannot win by 2011. And we will never win unless we devote far more resources and many more decades to neo-imperial control than America can afford and than the American and British publics will tolerate. Maybe deploying McChrystal to do his best - and still fail - will be the only way of proving this. Which is why this incident is actually, to my mind, a good thing.

It may help bring this madness to an earlier end.

(Photo: ISAF Commander General Stanley A. McChrystal yawns as he meets with high ranking military personnel October 7, 2009 at the forward operating base (FOB) Walton, outside of Kandahar, Afghanistan. By Paula Bronstein/Getty.)