Firing General Fuller: Why Politesse Matters in Modern Warfare

U.S. Army Major General Peter Fuller was fired following an interview where he criticized Harmid Karzai for saying Afghanistan would side with Pakistan in a war against the U.S. Why firing a general for telling the truth may have been the right call.

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks at a news conference in Kabul / Reuters

Last Thursday, U.S. Army Major General Peter Fuller gave a lively interview to Politico, where he said some impolitic things about the Afghan government.

The two-star general flashed irritation when he brought up [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai's recent remarks that Afghanistan would side with Pakistan in a war against the U.S., blasting the president's comments as "erratic," and adding, "Why don't you just poke me in the eye with a needle! You've got to be kidding me ... I'm sorry, we just gave you $11.6 billion and now you're telling me, 'I don't really care'?"

Gen. Fuller's comments caused a bit of a stir, and on Friday General John Allen, the commander of ISAF forces in Afghanistan, fired him. In the five days since, a debate has erupted over whether Gen. Allen was correct in doing so, and whether Gen. Fuller is, in a sense, being punished for, as his supporters say, "telling the truth."

One of the strongest voices criticizing Gen. Fuller's firing is defense writer Carl Prine.

The man charged with arming and training hundreds of thousands of Afghan security forces told a representative of the free press, asking a question crucial to our democracy's public debate about the war, that Afghan leaders are corrupt and incompetent; they fail to understand their own ability to sustain their armed forces; they don't see the economic problems roiling the U.S. and our European allies; and the kleptocracy of jug-eared thief Hamid Karzai shows no thanks for the ongoing sacrifice of our troops and taxpayers on their behalf.

Prine continues, and his post is worth reading in full. His argument, that ISAF would "punish the truth-teller and then add insult with a few dollops of lies on top," is taking root in some quarters of the Army. General Fuller's firing is, in Prine's argument, "Hypocrisy a la mode, if you will."

The problem with defending Fuller's remarks, however, is two-fold: they were not only an inaccurate description and analysis of the politics of Afghanistan, but they actively undermined the U.S. mission and strategy. Far from being a "truth-teller," Gen. Fuller made a serious error of judgment, both in how he understood Afghanistan and how he chose to express that understanding.

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Fuller in Afghanistan / AP

As an example, Karzai's remarks that he would side with Pakistan in the event of a conflict with the United States has generated much consternation in the U.S. While Karzai certainly did not express his point very well (which is worth condemning!), Karzai was expressing a very important point any Afghan leader would want to communicate to Pakistan: we are not interested in attacking you.Complaining about Karzai's zealous regard of Afghan interests over American interests is something of a tradition in both the military and the pro-military commentary class. And in almost all cases, those complaints miss the point entirely. Karzai's failures have little to do with who Karzai is as a person, but are rather tied up in the fundamentally unworkable institution of the Afghan President -- an institution we, the United States (including the United States Military) created for him. His failure is our failure, and complaining about his failure should also imply complaining about our own failure.

But beyond Gen. Fuller's misunderstanding of Karzai's specific remarks about Pakistan, he also misunderstood the larger Afghan political context of the remarks. Understanding why Afghanistan's political leaders behave the way they do is critical to creating policies and plans that will work most effectively with them. Karzai is right now in he middle of a major political campaign both within his own cabinet and with the major Pashtun figures in the Wolesi Jirga to try and justify enough support to last out his term. One of the ways he has been doing that is by playing up his opposition to the U.S. campaign there -- complaining about night raids, that horrible death-by-missile of those kids in Kunar, and so on. Having a U.S. general publicly berate him the way that Gen. Fuller did accomplishes two goals: it further deepens his argument that he is opposing the U.S., but it also makes him look weak in the eyes of his rivals. In other words, it sends the message that Karzai is still dependent on the U.S., and thus incapable of doing the many things we want him to do to start cleaning up the government. Karzai can't have that.

And even from a basic understanding of politics, Gen. Fuller's remarks were counterproductive. Gen. Fuller's remarks that Afghans are not grateful enough for the money the U.S. has spent on their army is deeply insulting. No matter the political system, having a foreign general berate an entire political class for their ingratitude is counterproductive and possibly even poisonous for future collaboration -- the most guaranteed way to undermine the mission. Basic human empathy can elucidate this very simple fact. Politics is as much as not speaking unpleasant truths as it is speaking pleasant untruths. It is universal to all political systems.

The U.S. strategy is based on supporting and building up the Afghan government. Publicly insulting them undermines that strategy is reason enough to fire Gen. Fuller, regardless of the anything else written above.

There is another point many commentators have raised, including Prine. Afterall, Gen. Fuller is being praised for his honesty, and telling the "truth" about Karzai (keeping in mind that Gen. Fuller did not actually tell the truth about Karzai) is what got him fired. Was there a way for Gen. Fuller to answer Politico's questions and remain honest? There surely is. Here is a brief list of answers Gen. Fuller could gave given Politico that would have kept him honest without politically attacking the Afghan government:

  • "I'm sorry, but as a General in the U.S. Army it is inappropriate for me to comment on the performance of foreign heads of state."
  • "Well, we face a lot of challenges, but I'm confident we can solve them and achieve our mission."
  • "I worry the Afghan government cannot afford in the long run the Army we are building for them."
  • "There is a political component to this war, and I'd suggest asking Ambassador Crocker about progress on that front."

This list can go on. No one forced Gen. Fuller to insult the people he is supposed to mentor and support. He did that from frustration, it is clear, but that does not make his outburst smart. The grander debate about military culture, "truth-telling" even when it's not really the truth, and whatever else is being raised to complain about General Fuller's sudden firing miss the very simplest point about this whole incident: by directly, personally insulting a foreign head of state, Gen. Fuller forced Gen. Allen to fire him.