'What are we doing here?'



Anyone who has tracked the downfall of our Afghanistan commander would be well advised to read the entire Rolling Stone article that triggered the controversy. The trash-talking quotes from General McChrystal and his frat-boy entourage are merely shreds of parsley atop a very substantive meal.

All the buzz about this piece is drawn from the opening anecdotes - McChrystal flipping somebody the bird, his boys ridiculing a French official as "gay," a top aide making fun of Joe Biden's name, "sources" close to McChrystal dumping on President Obama, yetta yetta - but somewhere around the 25th paragraph, the reporter delivers his well-earned downbeat verdict on what he rightly recognizes as "the longest war in American history."

Michael Hastings writes, "The president finds himself stuck in something even more insane than a quagmire: a quagmire he knowingly walked into, even though it's precisely the kind of gigantic, mind-numbing, multigenerational nation-building project he explicitly said he didn't want." And way down at the bottom, he concludes that America's "counterinsurgency" (COIN) strategy, which hinges heavily on winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people while creating a friendly national government from scratch, "has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military - perpetual war."

Fans of an open-ended war in Afghanistan will no doubt dismiss the article, given the fact that it appears in left-leaning Rolling Stone. But Hastings, who has been embedded for months with the U.S. military, reached his conclusions with the help of military sources who are outspokenly pessimistic about America's prospects for success. Forget all the trash-talking quotes up at the top of the story; the money quote - attributed to a senior McChrystal adviser - appears four paragraphs from the bottom: "If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular."

But most Americans are not paying attention. They don't follow the news about the war, because it's unrelentingly grim. They don't follow the war policy debates, because (as the Rolling Stone article makes clear) there are no good options. The McChrystal story was a two-day splash, but once his successor, General Petraeus, settles down to the onerous task of trying to wring success from a bad hand, most Americans will again avert their eyes. Meanwhile, a relatively small percentage will push harder for a more hawkish policy, and the rest (especially on Obama's left flank) will talk more vocally about the need to get out.

The Rolling Stone piece spells out the fundamental contradiction at the core of COIN. Under McChrystal's command, the troops in the field were told to aggressively seek out and kill the bad guys - yet, at the same time, they were told not to be too aggressive, lest they kill innocent civilians and thus generate hostility among the very people they were trying to woo. It has been difficult, if not impossible, to calibrate the balance properly. One confused soldier, Staff Sgt. Kennith Hicks, told Rolling Stone, "We're losing this f------ thing."

Worse yet, as the article detailed, the COIN nation-building strategy requires that America partner with a credible Afghan leader. The problem is that the designated leader is Hamid Karzai, who has little grassroots credibility. MChrystal's top teammates trash-talk him, too ("He's been locked up in his palace the past year"). The bottom line, as articulated by Douglas McGregor, a retired colonel who went to West Point with McChrystal: "The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people. The idea that we're going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense."

Obama signed on to COIN last December when he sent in 30,000 new troops (thereby hoping to placate hawkish conservatives), with the caveat that America would begin to withdraw troops during the summer of '11 (thereby hoping to placate his liberal base). The Rolling Stone piece, in its entirety, lays out a political/policy predicament that is likely to get worse before it (presumably) gets better. And the guys on the ground will be the ones who really take the hit. Long after the McChrystal firing has faded from the news, what I'll remember most about this article is a single quote from a soldier, Pfc. Jared Pautsch:

"You sit and ask yourself, what are we doing here?"


I'm off tomorrow, the final travel day in a long southern sojourn. Back on schedule next Monday.