July 4, 2010 and 2011

General David Petraeus accepted formal command of the nominally allied forces (International Security Assistance Forces or ISAF) today, July 4, 2010, replacing the departed and scarcely lamented General Stanley McChrystal, whose Paris night on the town brought new meaning to the old saw that “loose lips sink ships.” For Petraeus, the move was technically a demotion, since McChrystal reported to him as commander of Central Command (CENTCOM), and it placed him in an odd position. McChrystal was not replaced for pursuing a faulty strategy, but for insubordination, in effect. Instead, Petraeus is now charged with making successful a strategy that he helped craft and which McChrystal was apparently pursuing as well as it ould be pursued.

The problem, of course, was that the strategy was not working, and there is no particularly good reason to think a change at the top (particularly since it will not be accompanied by any strategic change of direction or emphasis) will make it work. It is arguable the strategy never has had any realistic prospects of success, because the mission it seeks to accomplish cannot be accomplished. A good strategy cannot accomplish an impossible task, and this seems to be the primary problem the Americans and our allies (including the Afghans themselves) seems to face.

Consider a remark by Petraeus in assuming command (reported by Dexter Filkins in the Washington Post on July 4, 2010 as “Petraeus Takes Command of Afghan Mission”). He is quoted as saying, “We must demonstrate to the people and to the Taliban that Afghan and ISAF forces are here to safeguard the Afghan people, and that we are in this to win.” Whoa!

Consider two elements of that quote that, in my mind, define the quixotic nature of the American quest in Afghanistan. First, it admits that the Afghans do not consider our presence liberating in any of the ways we have advertised as our intent, and that after eight and a half years, we still need to “demonstrate” that is what we are doing. If we have failed in convincing them we are the good guys for that long, the Afghans must have a pretty firm idea that we are in fact not that liberators, but something else (as in conquerors?). Second, this problem obviously extends to the Afghan government and Afghan forces as well, a rather blatant admission that we may be backing a congenital loser. These things being the cases,convincing the Afghans “that we are in this to win” rather obviously begs the question, “win what?”

Fast forward to July 4, 2011. At that point, American forces will, according to the Obama plan that Petraeus has very publicly supported, be beginning to come home. The question that must be asked is how, or whether, things will be any different then than they are now. Some, like John McCain, argue that telegraphing our departure date defeats the mission because it tells the enemy how long they have to lay low before we are gone and they can go on the offensive again. Implicit in this argument is that if we stay there in an open-ended commitment, the strategy will work. But where is the evidence for that?

The other position is that things will not change, because the whole Afghan enterprise is a mission impossible. No one has or can argue that the United States is making progress in the fight there: when was the last time one heard any encouraging words from Marjah, the centerpiece of the spring offensive, or about Kandahar, which has been delayed repeatedly as we try to convince the inhabitants that they want to be liberated? Is it too difficult to imagine that the Afghans simplydo not want us there and that they will fight and resist until we are gone (like countless invaders before us)? Is it also possible, as I suggested in an earlier post, that our presence is simply making matters worse FOR US, because our actions are simply creating Afghan jihadi intent on paying us back for what we are doing to their country by attacking ours in terrorist attacks? The latter–retribution–is, after all, why we went to Afghanistan in the first place: is turnabout only fair play?

Finally, what if the result of another year is simply to leave the situation essentially unchanged except for more American casualties? How will we treat those who simply allowed our young men and women in uniform to fight and die for an impossible cause ring at 2011 Independence Day celebrations a year from now?


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