Thursday, 24 June 2010

Showing who's boss

Here's an extraordinary comment from the Telegraph's Con Coughlin, one of the Afghanistan campaign's few remaining cheerleaders:

My confident prediction yesterday that President Barack Obama would fire him was drawn from my personal knowledge of the deep-seated tensions that currently exist between the military professionals who are charged with trying to achieve success in Afghanistan, and their political masters who – in London, as well as Washington – are looking for any excuse to pull the plug and withdraw their troops at the earliest opportunity.

(The tensions are no secret, of course. Many of them were explored in the Rolling Stone article. One interesting tidbit -

Only Hillary Clinton receives good reviews from McChrystal's inner circle. "Hillary had Stan's back during the strategic review," says an adviser. "She said, 'If Stan wants it, give him what he needs.' "

Does McChrystal's removal demonstrate Joe Biden's ascendency over Hills, I wonder.)

If the war were going even remotely according to plan, it's unlikely that politicians would be "looking for any excuse to pull the plug." Coughlin's contemptuous attitude towards non-military priorities was certainly shared by those around the dismissed general, which is why he had to go. This isn't just about strategy, either: it's about constitutionality. President Obama laid great stress in his announcement yesterday on the importance of civilian control of the aremed forces to the US system. In so doing he showed himself the heir not only of Lincoln but of Thomas Jefferson, who first saw the danger that the military establishment can pose to a republic. (Not that it was difficult to spot at the time: its name was Napoleon. Or Caesar.)

The American defence budget is so enormous that any president has to be careful to ensure that the Pentagon's priorities do not by default become the US's priorities. Indeed, it was to a great extent George W Bush's (and our own Mr Tony's) unchecked enthusiasm for uniforms that got us all into this mess.

Coughlin argues that McChrystal's departure will "leave an enormous hole in the Afghan war effort, not least because a few home truths have been spoken about the incompetence with which this U.S. administration is prosecuting a war that is deemed vital to the security of Western interests." Note the passive mood. Not everyone deems it vital. On the other hand, the continued bone-headed insistence in some quarters that it is vital is now a major obstacle in the way of bringing the whole sorry adventure to an end. Whatever incompetence there has been among the political leadership, moreover, is as nothing compared to the delusional thinking among the war's military planners. Rolling Stone again:

Even those closest to McChrystal know that the rising anti-war sentiment at home doesn't begin to reflect how deeply fucked up things are in Afghanistan. "If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular," a senior adviser to McChrystal says. Such realism, however, doesn't prevent advocates of counterinsurgency from dreaming big: Instead of beginning to withdraw troops next year, as Obama promised, the military hopes to ramp up its counterinsurgency campaign even further.

Coughlin writes that his "concern now is that all those – including the British government – that had invested heavily in the McChrystal doctrine will now use his demise as an excuse to find their own reasons for pulling out." It's my hope. But I suspect this fiasco has a few more years to go yet.