Stephen M. Walt

Contrary to what many (but not all) commentators seem to think, the firing of Stanley McChrystal and his replacement by General David Petraeus is not that significant. To be more precise, it will only be a significant event if Obama uses this shift as an opportunity to move towards withdrawal. Otherwise, we’ll just rearrange some deck chairs and watch the war effort continue to founder.

Until the Rolling Stone article surfaced, there was little sign that Obama was unhappy with McChrystal’s handling of the war. (Gareth Porter of IPS reports that there was in fact growing discontent within the administration over the lack of progress, but it hadn’t surfaced in any visible way.) More importantly, there was no sign that Petraeus had serious problems with McChrystal’s performance or visible doubts about the need to continue the fight until “victory” was achieved. Don’t forget that Petraeus’s status and prestige is based on his knowledge of and commitment to counter-insurgency (COIN) warfare, and COIN is exactly what McChrystal was doing too. Unlike the “surge” in Iraq, which involved a fundamental shift in U.S. strategy and tactics, there is no reason to expect Petraeus to implement a fundamentally different approach in Afghanistan. The subhead in today’s New York Times says it all: “Obama Says Afghan Policy Won’t Change after Dismissal.” Uh-oh.

There is also no reason to believe Petraeus will achieve significantly different results because the problem in Afghanistan is not the quality of our generals. Bad leadership can hamper a war effort, of course, but it is a fallacy to think that all we need to do is get the right leader in place at the top and then all will be well. (Military history is often written in ways that glorifies the role of the “great captains,” but there’s a lot more to military success than just a smart and inspired commanders).

The real problem is that our campaign in Afghanistan is like trying to nail jelly to the wall. The Karzai government is a liability, not an asset, and we have no way of making it perform better. Similarly, we have no way of forcing the Taliban to sit still and fight us out in the open — where they would be easy to beat — when confronted by superior force, they simply melt away and wait us out. Although troop morale seems to be good, our forces have been fighting a long time and burnout is beginning to set in. Our NATO allies are leaving the field, and Americans are beginning to realize that the costs of continuing this fight exceed either the benefits of victory or the risks of withdrawal. “Victory” in Afghanistan — whatever that might mean — wouldn’t make al Qaeda a lot weaker; and “failure” wouldn’t make them much stronger either. Putting a new general in charge doesn’t change that calculus at all.

Third, some prominent commentators like Andrew Sullivan now worry that Obama is in effect hostage to Petraeus, because the latter’s stature and prestige will make it almost impossible for Obama to overrule him should he ask for more troops or seek to continue the war indefinitely. That is an obvious danger, but that same prestige and stature also makes Petraeus the best person to help Obama sell a prudent decision to cut our losses and get out.  Moreover, Petraeus’ stature is based primarily on the supposed success of the 2007 “surge” in Iraq, a campaign that achieved the tactical objective of lowering the level of violenace but did not achieve the strategic goal of political reconciliation. If Iraq goes south again as U.S. forces withdraw, some of Petraeus’s current luster is bound to diminish and Obama’s freedom of maneuver might increase.

In any case, the only important question here is what Obama is telling Petraeus to do. In essence, McChrystal’s gaffe has given Obama a chance for a “do-over.” He made the wrong choice in the fall of 2009, when he agreed to escalate the U.S. presence despite all the obvious pitfalls.  Has he learned from the results of the past nine months?  Does he now realize that he is not the master of events in Afghanistan, and that he cannot achieve success there simply by giving inspiring speeches and sending more troops? And has he begun to sense that this war might not be winnable at acceptable cost, and that continuing the fight is putting his entire presidency at risk?

If he has, he’ll tell Petraeus that his mission isn’t to pacify Afghanistan, build a stable central government there, or even “defeat, disrupt, and defeat al Qaeda” (which isn’t in Afghanistan anymore). Rather, his mission is to find a way for the United States to end this futile and unnecessary adventure in social engineering, so that we can turn our attention (and our finite resources) to more pressing problems.

If Obama hasn’t learned that lesson, then he will find himself stuck in the Afghan quagmire for the remainder of his time in office. As with Johnson in Vietnam and Bush in Iraq, the war will suck the life out of his presidency and make it impossible to achieve more urgent domestic and international priorities. And because he’s now had two opportunities to chart a different course, it will have been entirely his own doing.

Source: Foreign Policy

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he served as Academic Dean from 2002 to 2006. He previously taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago, where he was Master of the Social Science Collegiate Division and Deputy Dean of Social Sciences.

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  1. IT'S CALLED 'SCREW OVER' NOT 'DO OVER' GUY! on the 28. Jun, 2010 remarked #

    Whenever I look at the one photo of demon Betrayeus gesticulating in front of a golf game dreaming moron Barry Soetoro sitting next to him, I see visions of ‘Apocalypse Now’ where the rogue colonel is explaining to actor Dennis Hopper the utter beauty of his little fiefdom in the middle of the Cambodian jungle, far from CONgressional oversight and peering eyeballs. I see the swinging blade of a machete as the ‘practice swings’ take place in preparation of the beheading of the Colonel.

    I see Barry Soetoro, standing in front of a podium, blood dripping out of the corner of his mouth, with a stashed palestinian baby with it’s head bitten clean off it, behind the podium, safe from the camera lens, far from where it can cast a reflection on his warmonger handler’s teleprompter. I see Barry Soetoro wincing as the skull and brains of the child go down his throat and the tickling sensation sends rushes down to his toes. I see the mandelbrot zoom in to the universes of the families of the dead soldiers in Barry’s wars for Israel, are sitting, bier side, presented flags, in return for the squandered, wasted lives of their sons and fathers and daughters and mothers. I see the trembling hands of an elderly father who served in a world war years ago, accept the casket cover from his 21 year old son’s box.

    I see the press corps, sans Helen Thomas, all chuckling and chortling as the blood and veins drip out of Barry Soetoro’s feckless mouth, and I see the nose twitches of an animal lusting for more blood.

    Do over? Did you say, Do over??

    Oh no, for this to be a ‘do over’ it would have to have ended briefly at some point, and restarted again. It is a Military Industrial / Israeli war for profit and oil and gas and must never, ever pause, let alone end. No ‘do over’ is necessary, for war in perpetuity never means ever having to say YOU ARE SORRY…

  2. Debbie on the 28. Jun, 2010 remarked #

    One fact, irrevocably inevitable, either way… it is a lost war, like all previous invasions into Afghanistan and no one is going to save it or win it.

    No one is going to lose it, either. It will run itself down and out of steam in its own time and the historians on either side will decide who won it. No one will believe either of them, and the rest of us will argue about it forever.

    There is no General who would be the right one for this job.

    The sensible solution would be for all Commanders in Chiefs to call their troops home, right now, without discussion, explanation, or further ado, and see what happens.


  3. it's more of a WAR CRIME than a war, Debbie on the 28. Jun, 2010 remarked #

    Actually, the whole excuse given to the ignorant sheep in Amerika, is that Osama who did 9/11 to us (but really didn’t, had nothing to do with it, whatsoever, except to provide a good patsy and cover story to AL-CIA-DA, who DID DO IT TO THE U.S.) and hence, this made it necessary to go into Afghanistan and punish the perps (who were actually in Langley VA and Tel Aviv) who did this.

    Well, as you know, Osama bin Decomposin has been dead now since December 14th, 2001. The folks in Langley, not to be outdone, have made so many fake Osama video’s, they might as well dress their next boy in Elvis gear and videotape him like that!! They think we’re all too stupid to see this Adam Gadahn (perlman) is an israeli MOSSAD AGENT’s kid, and that the rest of these American Enterprise filth here are all MOSSAD agents, pretending to be a think tank.

    Anyway, the whole reason for the U.S. to be in Afghanistvietnam, is to run the oil and gas pipelines in there from the rich oilfields in the Caspian Sea Basin, and this is their primary objective. It never had anything to do with Timmy Osman aka Osama, and it never had anything to do with terrorism. IT was ALWAYS A VERY POORLY CONCOCTED EXCUSE and now I would think that most of the world that doesn’t use FAUX NOIZE as it’s source, knows who really did 9/11 and why the U.S. is in Afghanistvietnam.

    Just like every conqueror who’s been in there before, they all have been bodily thrown out in shame and disgrace. The U.S. is not going to leave in any other way. This war was lost to them a long time ago, and the only thing left to do is to GET THE F*CK OUT and make reparations to the tens of thousands of Afghani’s who’ve had their lives irreparably destroyed by American hubris and greed.

    Otherwise, the death toll will climb and climb and climb till the U.S. has it’s ‘Saigon evacuation moment’ in Afghanistan.

    Once the attack on Iran begins, the american forces in Afghanistan will be needed in ground combat in Iran, because that nation will not just roll over and be butt buggered by Barry Soetoro and his gang of Israeli handlers.

    It will not be a walk in any park. the Rubicon might just as well be renamed the Styx, once this war with Iran begins, and the U.S. has already crossed it!

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