GEN McChrystal’s assessment has now been “leaked.” Now what? For some time now, it has seemed that the tide of public opinion has been turning against the “Good War.” Why do you think that is?
Because suddenly everyone has realized that Afghanistan is a complex, dynamic situation. It is what analysts call a “wicked problem.” Everyone thought that Iraq was complicated and that Afghanistan was more simple. Now that people have really taken a look at Afghanistan, they realize that it is not so simple. In many ways, it is more complex than Iraq. It makes people’s heads hurt.
Not being able to make sense of the problem, they figure that nobody can, and that’s when the pessimism of the public takes hold.
A few words of caution: First, the American public has nothing of the real story of Afghanistan presented to them. The only brave reporters in the country are busying themselves with covering combat. The rest remain in Kabul, running stringers of dubious quality and unknown affiliations. For the first time, today, I was asked by a civilian, “Why is none of the good stuff that we are doing getting told back home? Why is the press ignoring the real stories here?”
I cannot answer that question in a way that sounds even vaguely like I feel that the mainstream media has a clue. Media people are allowed to attend the Counterinsurgency Training Center. Damned few take up the offer. How can a press corps even pretend to know what they are talking about when they don’t do their best to understand the reasoning, the doctrine, the strategy behind what they are seeing? Most of them, a select few exempted, have no idea what they are looking at when they watch the military do anything beyond brushing their teeth. Not only that, but they don’t try.
What does this have to do with GEN McChrystal’s assessment? Well, the General points out a few things that are being glossed over back home. First, the Afghans want us here. He quotes General Wardak in his report as saying just that. Wardak also notes that the time is ripe for success. The raw material for a comprehensive and integrated approach to the counterinsurgency is building in Afghanistan, and for the first time, we are hearing that the American public is now tilting against this theater. Amazing. What timing. Americans, like my beloved but hapless Bengals, have a particular talent ever since the early seventies for snatching defeat from the jaws of success. It is quite possible for us to succeed in Afghanistan. The situation is far from ideal. It is serious, and that is our fault. No doubt. But it is not hopeless.
I am still digesting the report; but having seen the followup briefings, where the story unfolds further, the assessment is no surprise. I cannot discuss the briefings on where, specifically, the General plans to take this, but I can tell you that he is not tolerating among our leadership here the kind of pessimism that runs rampant in our homeland. We cannot afford to let it make our heads hurt. It is our job to handle the wicked problem. There are some very determined people involved here. Now we are seeing determined, hopeful people who don’t wear uniforms bringing their talents to bear where they should have been years ago. It is not too late, and the General states this clearly. Now is the time; not to double down just to be doubling down, but to learn, adapt and take our performance of real counterinsurgency to the next level.
President Obama has, somehow or other, wound up with the “Dream Team” on the issue of Afghanistan. Just as Al Qaeda has shifted resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, so have we. Many of the people who sharpened their claws in Iraq have been shifted over to Afghanistan, and the good war has taken on a primacy of effort that was lacking when I first arrived in April of 2007. While still sparsely resourced, people who know how to do stability and counterinsurgency operations have begun to come into the country, and they are having an impact. GEN McChrystal has got some wicked smart people working for him on projects large and small that will make a positive impact on this country.
Now the President, swayed by the possibility of an unpopular decision, begins to waffle. This is not the right time to waffle. This is the time to be decisive.
I was recently thanked by a foreign officer for something I said to a group of American officers. I told the American officers that the rest of the world views us as the big fat rich kid on the world playground. We want everyone to like us, and are heartbroken to discover that a few don’t. We are easily aroused and like to throw our weight around. We think that what we think is going to be the most important thing on everyone’s agenda. We are not afraid to fight, and we have heavy hands. God help you if we catch you with a punch; few can withstand a beating from us. But, we are clumsy. We can be hurt, and we have no stamina; no real will. If we can be made to bleed a little, and if we can be run in circles for more than a little while, we tire easily. We have the propensity, when things get tough and we get a little winded, to take our ball and go home. We are prone to quitting. We have quit before, and we are more than likely to quit again. The Taliban know that, and the Afghan people know that. It is part of the insurgent song to the people, a message designed to keep them on the fence, unsure of which way best suits their interests. If they commit to the government being helped the by the fat kid, and the fat kid runs away to mope, they can die. Many dare not commit. Many who have committed in the last eight years have paid the price with their lives as we have moved into an area, cleared it out and announced that the bad times were over. As the good-intentioned patriots emerged to help heal their communities, we have left their damaged communities with nothing to guarantee security. Our focus was on developing the Army, after all. The Police? Nobody wanted to work with them, to improve them. Yet we left those communities in their untrained, ill-led hands and scampered off in search of more Taliban to chase. The Taliban returned to those communities and killed those who had stood up in their absence. It is a phenomenon we call “mowing the grass.”
We have mowed a lot of grass. Many would-be patriots have died as a result of our inability to grasp the importance of a comprehensive, integrated approach to assisting in the rebuilding of a society damaged to its core by over thirty years of warfare and upheaval, suffering from a chronic insurgency. We are world famous for abandoning those who we had told, “We will not abandon you.”
The foreign officer thanked me for saying what all of the Coalition and Afghan partners were thinking. They were afraid to raise the point, though; because we can be an ill-tempered lot when our assumptions about ourselves are challenged. To those men, it just isn’t worth it to hold up their mirror for us to look at. It’s like when someone who really doesn’t care about you lets you walk around with spinach in your teeth.
The fat kid is wheezing now. We are faltering, cocooning, withdrawing within ourselves and our head hurts from the complexity of it all. We want to quit. We want to take our ball and go home. We will cede this area to instability and leave, like we are leaving our debt, the mortal threat for our children to handle. It’s all just too much for us to bear.
Who would have thought, four years ago, that of the two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, that the one where we would tire out and be losers would be Afghanistan? When Obama made Afghanistan the “good war,” and when he called Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” you would have expected firm, decisive movement. Initially, that is what was shown. He went along with firing McKiernan and replacing him with McChrystal, whose vision and leadership has shaken the “same old, same old” sensibilities of the Afghanistan mission. GEN McChrystal promises, through his actions and initiatives, to do things that have never been done in Afghanistan. Now, the President is poised to force the resignation of this leader, which will be the political death of his administration. But he will leave the General no recourse if he fails to resource the mission properly.
In the meantime, back home, ill-informed people who knew nothing about Afghanistan at this time last year other than it wasn’t Iraq and it was where Osama was when the World Trade Center crashed to the ground, have had the chance to learn a little more about this ancient land. What they learned was that it wasn’t so simple. It wasn’t so easy. It made their heads hurt. It is a wicked, dynamic problem, and it makes heads hurt. They stare and stare at the picture, but they just can’t see the damned dolphin. So, their answer is to quit. They begin to waver. President Obama, the most politically sensitive president I’ve ever seen… a veritable political weather vane, senses the wind shift… and dissembles accordingly.
The news today is that the President is considering a plan brought forth in the spring by another great military leader and strategic genius. It is certainly cheaper, and is likely to prove enormously popular with the waffles back home. It actually involves fewer troops in Afghanistan, a great reliance on drone strikes and Special Operations raids in Pakistan (boy, I bet that makes the Pakistanis happy!) That sounds as effective as lobbing 63 cruise missiles at a few mud huts. Not like that’s ever been done before.
Meanwhile, cheerleaders all over Washington and parts of the press are laying it on thick in a bid to win their agendas. They are the part of the fat kid’s mind that tells him that he is afraid, that he is tired, that nothing is worth it. I’ve watched the voices become strident. “This is a long, steep hill,” the voice in his head tells the fat kid, “you can quit any time you want. Let’s go have some ice cream. You know it’s hard, and you’re sweaty, and you’re tired. Your head hurts. This wasn’t all easy like you thought. It’s too hard. Ice cream sounds good. Let’s go get some ice cream and watch American Idol.”
We are the big, rich, fat kid. We talk a big story, but our word isn’t worth a plugged nickel. That’s what Omar means when he says, “The Americans have the watches, but we have the time.” He knows us well enough to know that we are quitters.
For those of you who are tracking, remember that you are not even getting half of the story of what is actually happening over here. As for how to deal with the, “My Head Hurts” crowd, just tell your fellow citizens to take some Advil and stand by. The next move is Obama’s, and it will determine the immediate future of my mission in Afghanistan, my son’s future, and how long we will stay the fat, rich kid who talks big and runs away when the other kid hits back.