[HCCN] fw: Obama's surrender

Judith Robbins JUDY at ROBBINSandROBBINS.com
Thu Dec 3 21:20:15 EST 2009

Published on Thursday, December 3, 2009 by TomDispatch.com
Victory at Last!: Monty Python in Afghanistan

by Tom Engelhardt
Let others deal with the details of President Obama’s Afghan speech,  
with the on-ramps and off-ramps, those 30,000 U.S. troops going in  
and just where they will be deployed, the benchmarks for what’s  
called “good governance” in Afghanistan, the corruption of the  
Karzai regime, the viability of counterinsurgency warfare, the  
reliability of NATO allies, and so on.  Let’s just skip to the most  
essential point which, in a nutshell, is this:  Victory at Last!

It’s been a long time coming, but finally American war commanders  
have effectively marshaled their forces, netcentrically  
outmaneuvering and outflanking the enemy.  They have shocked-and-awed  
their opponents, won the necessary hearts-and-minds, and so, for the  
first time in at least two decades, stand at the heights of success,  
triumphant at last.

And no, I’m not talking about post-surge Iraq and certainly not  
about devolving Afghanistan.  I’m talking about what’s happening  
in Washington.

A Symbolic Surrender of Civilian Authority
You may not think so, but on Tuesday night from the U.S. Military  
Academy at West Point, in his first prime-time presidential address  
to the nation, Barack Obama surrendered.  It may not have looked like  
that: there were no surrender documents; he wasn’t on the deck of  
the USS Missouri ; he never bowed his head.  Still, from today on,  
think of him not as the commander-in-chief, but as the commanded-in- 
And give credit to the victors.  Their campaign was nothing short of  
brilliant.  Like the policy brigands they were, they ambushed the  
president, held him up with their threats, brought to bear key media  
players and Republican honchos, and in the end made off with the  
loot.  The campaign began in late September with a strategic leak of  
Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal’s grim review of the  
situation in that country, including demands for sizeable troop  
escalations and a commitment to a counterinsurgency war.  It came to  
include rumors of potential retirements in protest if the president  
didn’t deliver, as well as clearly insubordinate policy remarks by  
General McChrystal, not to speak of an impressive citizen- 
mobilization of inside-the-Beltway former neocon or fighting liberal  
think-tank experts, and a helping hand from an admiring media.  In  
the process, the U.S. military succeeded in boxing in a president who  
had already locked himself into a conflict he had termed both “the  
right war” and a “necessary” one.  After more than two months of  
painfully over-reported deliberations, President Obama has now ended  
up essentially where General McChrystal began.
Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine was dusted off from the moldy  
Vietnam archives and made spanking new by General David Petraeus in  
2006, applied in Iraq (and Washington) in 2007, and put forward for  
Afghanistan in late 2008.  It has now been largely endorsed, and a  
major escalation of the war -- a new kind of military-led nation  
building (or, as they like to say, “good governance”) is to be  
cranked up and set in motion.  COIN is being billed as a “population- 
centric,” not “enemy-centric” approach in which U.S. troops are  
distinctly to be "nation-builders as well as warriors."
And as for those 30,000 troops, most expected to arrive in the Afghan  
combat zone within the next six months , the numbers are even more  
impressive when you realize that, as late as the summer of 2008, the  
U.S. only had about 28,000 troops in Afghanistan.  In other words, in  
less than two years, U.S. troop strength in that country will have  
more than tripled to approximately 100,000 troops.  So we’re talking  
near-Vietnam-level escalation rates.  If you include the 38,000 NATO  
forces also there (and a possible 5,000 more to come), total allied  
troop strength will be significantly above what the Soviets deployed  
during their devastating Afghan War of the 1980s in which they fought  
some of the same insurgents now arrayed against us.
Think of this as Barack Obama’s anti-MacArthur moment.  In April  
1951, in the midst of the Korean War, President Harry Truman relieved  
Douglas MacArthur of command of American forces.  He did so because  
the general, a far grander public figure than either McChrystal or  
Centcom commander Petraeus (and with dreams of his own about a  
possible presidential run), had publicly disagreed with, and  
interfered with, Truman’s plans to “limit” the war after the  
Chinese intervened.
Obama, too, has faced what Robert Dreyfuss in Rolling Stone calls a  
“generals’ revolt” -- amid fears that his Republican opposition  
would line up behind the insubordinate field commanders and make hay  
in the 2010 and 2012 election campaigns.  Obama, too, has faced a  
general, Petraeus, who might well have presidential ambitions, and  
who has played a far subtler game than MacArthur ever did.  After  
more than two months of what right-wing critics termed “dithering”  
and supporters called “thorough deliberations,” Obama dealt with  
the problem quite differently.  He essentially agreed to subordinate  
himself to the publicly stated wishes of his field commanders.  (Not  
that his Republican critics will give him much credit for doing so,  
of course.)  This is called “politics” in our country and, for a  
Democratic president in our era, Tuesday night’s end result was  
remarkably predictable.
When Obama bowed to the Japanese emperor on his recent Asian tour,  
there was a media uproar in this country.  Even though the speech  
Tuesday night should be thought of as bowing to the American  
military, there is likely to be little complaint on that score.   
Similarly, despite the significance of symbolism in Washington, there  
has been surprisingly little discussion about the president’s  
decision to address the American people not from the Oval Office, but  
from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
It was there that, in 2002, George W. Bush gave a speech before the  
assembled cadets in which he laid out his aggressive strategy of  
preventive war, which would become the cornerstone of “the Bush  
Doctrine.”   (“If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we  
will have waited too long -- Our security will require transforming  
the military you will lead -- a military that must be ready to strike  
at a moment's notice in any dark corner of the world. And our  
security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and  
resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend  
our liberty and to defend our lives.”)  But keep in mind that this  
was still a graduation speech and presidents have traditionally  
addressed one of the military academies at graduation time.
Obama is not a man who appears in prop military jackets with  
“commander-in-chief” hand-stitched across his heart before hoo- 
aahing crowds of soldiers, as our last president loved to do, and yet  
in his first months in office he has increasingly appeared at  
military events and associated himself with things military.  This  
speech represents another step in that direction.  Has a president  
ever, in fact, given a non-graduation speech at West Point, no less a  
major address to the American people?  Certainly, the choice of  
venue, and so the decision to address a military audience first and  
other Americans second, not only emphasized the escalatory military  
path chosen in Afghanistan, but represented a kind of symbolic  
surrender of civilian authority.
For his American audience, and undoubtedly his skittish NATO allies  
as well, the president did put a significant emphasis on an exit  
strategy from the war.  That off-ramp strategy was, however, placed  
in the context of the training of the woeful Afghan security forces  
to take control of the struggle themselves and the woeful government  
of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to turn over a new nation-building  
leaf.  Like the choice of West Point, this, too, seemed to resonate  
with eerie echoes of the years in which George W. Bush regularly  
intoned the mantra:  “As Iraqis stand-up, we will stand down.”
In his address, Obama offered July 2011 as the date to begin a  
withdrawing the first U.S. troops from Afghanistan.  (“After 18  
months, our troops will begin to come home.”)  However, according to  
the Washington-insider Nelson Report, a White House “on  
background” press briefing Tuesday afternoon made it far clearer  
that the president was talking about a “conditions based  
withdrawal.” It would, in other words, depend “on objective  
conditions on the ground,” on whether the Afghans had met the  
necessary “benchmarks.”  When asked about the “scaling back”  
of the American war effort, General McChrystal recently suggested a  
more conservative timeline -- “sometime before 2013” -- seconded  
hazily by Said Jawad, the Afghan ambassador to Washington.  Secretary  
of Defense Robert Gates refers to this as a "thinning out" of U.S.  
In fact, there’s no reason to put faith in any of these hazy  
deadlines.  After all, this is the administration that came into  
office announcing a firm one-year closing date for the U.S. prison in  
Guantanamo (now officially missed ), a firm sunshine policy for an  
end-of-2009 release of millions of pages of historical documents from  
the archives of the CIA and other intelligence and military services  
(now officially delayed , possibly for years), and of course a firm  
date for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, followed by all U.S.  
forces from Iraq (now possibly slipping ).
Finish the job in Afghanistan?  Based on the plans of the field  
commanders to whom the president has bowed, on the administration’s  
record of escalation in the war so far, and on the quiet reassurances  
to the Pakistanis that we aren’t leaving Afghanistan in any  
imaginable future, this war looks to be all job and no finish.   
Whatever the flourishes, that was the essence of Tuesday night’s  
surrender speech.

Monty Python in Afghanistan

Honestly, if it weren’t so grim, despite all the upbeat benchmarks  
and encouraging words in the president’s speech, this would  
certainly qualify as Monty Python in Afghanistan.  After all, three  
cabinet ministers and 12 former ministers are under investigation in  
Afghanistan itself on corruption charges.  And that barely scratches  
the surface of the problems in a country that one Russian expert  
recently referred to as an “international drug firm,” where at  
least one-third of the gross national product comes from the drug  
trade.  In addition, as Juan Cole wrote at his Informed Comment blog:

“Months after the controversial presidential election that many  
Afghans consider stolen, there is no cabinet, and parliament is  
threatening to go on recess before confirming a new one because the  
president is unconstitutionally late in presenting the names. There  
are grave suspicions that some past and present cabinet members have  
engaged in the embezzlement of substantial sums of money. There is  
little parliamentary oversight. Almost no one bothers to attend the  
parliamentary sessions. The cabinet ministries are unable to spend  
the money allocated to them on things like education and rural  
development, and actually spent less in absolute terms last year than  
they did in the previous two years.”

In addition, the Taliban now reportedly take a cut of the billions of  
dollars in U.S. development aid flowing into the country, much of  
which is otherwise squandered, and of the American money that goes  
into “protecting” the convoys that bring supplies to U.S. troops  
throughout the country.  One out of every four Afghan soldiers has  
quit or deserted the Afghan National Army in the last year, while the  
ill-paid, largely illiterate, hapless Afghan police with their “well- 
deserved reputation for stealing and extorting bribes,” not to speak  
of a drug abuse rate estimated at 15%, are, as its politely put,  
“years away from functioning independently”; and the insurgency is  
spreading to new areas of the country and reviving in others.

Good governance?  Good grief!

Not that Washington, which obviously feels that it has much to impart  
to the Afghan people about good governance and how to deal with  
corruption, has particularly firm ground to stand on.  After all, the  
United States has just completed its first billion-dollar  
presidential election in a $5 billion election season, and two  
administrations just propped up some of the worst financial scofflaws  
in the history of the world and got nothing back in return.

Meanwhile, the money flowing into Washington political coffers from  
Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, the pharmaceutical and  
health care industries, real estate, legal firms, and the like might  
be thought of as a kind of drug in itself.  At the same time,  
according to USA Today, at least 158 retired generals and admirals,  
many already pulling in military pensions in the range of $100,000- 
$200,000, have been hired as “senior mentors” by the Pentagon  
“to offer advice under an unusual arrangement”:  they also work  
for companies seeking Defense Department contracts.

In Congress, a Senate maneuver which only a few years ago was so rare  
that the response to it was nicknamed “the nuclear option” --  
needing a 60-vote majority to pass anything of significance -- has,  
almost without comment, become a commonplace for the passage of just  
about anything.  This means Congress is eternally in a state of  
gridlock.  And that’s just for starters when it comes to ways in  
which the U.S. government, so ready to surge its military and its  
civilian employees into Afghanistan in the name of good governance,  
is in need of repair, if not nation-building itself.

Airless in Washington

It’s nonetheless the wisdom of this Washington and of this military  
that Obama has not found wanting, at least when it comes to Afghanistan.

So here’s a question:  Why did he listen to them?  And under such  
circumstances, why should we take the results seriously?

Stop for a moment and consider the cast of characters who offered the  
president the full range of advice available in Washington -- all of  
which, as far as we can tell, from Joe Biden’s “counterterrorism- 
plus” strategy to McChrystal’s COIN and beyond, was escalatory in  
nature.  These are, of course, the wise men (and woman) of our era.   
But just a cursory glance at their collective record should at least  
make you wonder:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now said to be the official  
with the best ties to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and so the one in  
charge of “coaxing” him into a round of reasonable nation- 
building, of making “a new compact" with the Afghan people by  
“improving governance and cracking down on corruption”; and yet,  
in the early 1990s, in her single significant nation-building  
experience at home, she botched the possibility of getting a  
universal health-care bill through Congress.  She also had the  
“wisdom” to vote in 2003 to authorize the invasion of Iraq.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, reputedly deeply trusted by the  
president and in charge of planning out our military future in  
Afghanistan, was in the 1980s a supposed expert on the Soviet Union  
as well as deputy CIA director and later deputy to National Security  
Advisor Brent Scowcroft.  Yet, in those years, he couldn’t bring  
himself to believe that the Soviets were done for even as that empire  
was disappearing from the face of the Earth.  In the words of former  
National Security Council official Roger Morris, Gates “waged a  
final battle against the Soviets, denying at every turn that the old  
enemy was actually dying.”  As former CIA official Melvin Goodman  
has put the matter :  “Gates was wrong about every key intelligence  
question of the 1980s... A Kremlinologist by training, Gates was one  
of the last American hardliners to comprehend the changes taking  
place in the Soviet Union. He was wrong about Mikhail Gorbachev,  
wrong about the importance of reform, wrong about Moscow's pursuit of  
arms control and détente with the United States.  He was wrong about  
the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan...”

Vice-President Joe Biden, recently described as potentially “the  
second-most-powerful vice president in history” as well as “the  
president’s all-purpose adviser and sage” on foreign policy, was  
during the Bush years a believer in nation-building in Afghanistan,  
voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, and later promoted the idea  
-- like Caesar re:  Gaul -- of dividing that country into three parts  
(without, of course, bothering to ask the Iraqis), while leaving  
25,000-30,000 American troops based there in perpetuity, while  
“these regions build up their state police forces.”

General Stanley McChrystal, our war commander in Afghanistan and now  
the poster boy for counterinsurgency warfare, had his skills honed  
purely in the field of counterterrorism .  He was a Special Ops guy.   
The man who is now to “protect” the Afghan people previously won  
his spurs as the head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)  
in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He ran the “manhunters” – essentially,  
that is, he was the leader of a team of assassins and evidently part  
of what reporter Seymour Hersh has termed an "executive assassination  
wing" of that command, possibly taking orders directly from Vice  
President Dick Cheney.  His skills involved guns to the head, not  
protective boots on the ground.

General David Petraeus, the general leading everything, who has been  
practically deified in the U.S. media, is perhaps the savviest and  
most accomplished of this crew.  He surged into Iraq in 2007 and,  
with the help of fortuitous indigenous developments, staunched the  
worst of the bleeding, leaving behind a big question mark. His  
greatest skill, however, has been in fostering the career of David  
Petraeus.  He is undoubtedly an advisor with an agenda and in his  
wake come a whole crew of military and think-tank experts, with  
almost unblemished records of being wrong in the Bush years, whom the  
surge in Iraq recredentialized.

Karl Eikenberry, our ambassador to Kabul, in his previous career in  
the U.S. military served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, and as the  
commander of Combined Forces Command Afghanistan was the general  
responsible for building up the Afghan army and “reforming” that  
country’s police force.  On both counts, we know how effective that  
attempt proved.

And when it comes to key figures with well-padded Washington CVs like  
Admiral Mike Mullen , Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or James  
Jones , present national security advisor and former commandant of  
the Marine Corps, as well as the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, a  
close friend of Senator John McCain, and a former revolving-door  
board member of Chevron and Boeing, remind me just what sticks in  
your mind about their accomplishments?

So, when you think about Barack Obama’s Afghan decisions, imagine  
first that the man considered the smartest, most thoughtful president  
of our era chose to surround himself with these people.  He chose,  
that is, not fresh air, or fresh thought in the field of foreign and  
war policy, but the airless precincts where the combined wisdom of  
Washington and the Pentagon now exists, and the remarkable lack of  
accomplishment that goes with it.  In short, these are people whose  
credentials largely consist of not having been right about much over  
the years.

Admittedly, this administration has called in practically every  
Afghan expert in sight.  Everyone involved could now undoubtedly  
expound on relatively abstruse questions of Afghan tribal politics,  
locate Paktia Province on a map in a flash, and tell you just which  
of Hamid Karzai’s ministers are under investigation for corruption.

Unfortunately, the most essential problem isn’t in Afghanistan;  
it’s here in the United States, in Washington, where knowledge is  
slim, egos large, and national security wisdom is deeply imprinted on  
a system bleeding money and breaking down.  The president campaigned  
on the slogan , “Change we can believe in.”  He then chose as  
advisors -- in the economic sphere as well, where a similar record of  
gross error , narrow and unimaginative thinking, and over- 
identification with the powerful could easily be compiled -- a crew  
who had never seen a significant change, or an out-of-the-ordinary  
thought it could live with -- and still can’t.

As a result, the Iraq War has yet to begin to go away, the Afghan War  
is being escalated in a major way, the Middle East is in some  
turmoil, Guantanamo remains open, black sites are still operating in  
Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s budget has grown yet larger, and  
supplemental demands on Congress for yet more money to pay for George  
W. Bush’s wars will, despite promises otherwise, soon enough be made .

A stale crew breathing stale air has ensured that Afghanistan, the  
first of Bush’s disastrous wars, is now truly Obama’s War; and the  
news came directly from West Point where the president surrendered to  
his militarized fate.

Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project , runs the  
Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of  
Victory Culture , a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of  
a novel, The Last Days of Publishing . He also edited The World  
According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso,  
2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.

Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org

URL to article: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/12/03-5
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