Victory at Last! Monty Python in Afghanistan | The Nation


Victory at Last! Monty Python in Afghanistan

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Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute of which he is a Fellow...

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Let others deal with the details of President Obama's Afghan speech, with the on-ramps and off-ramps, those 30,000 US 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 US 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-chief.

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 US 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 US 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 United States only had about 28,000 troops in Afghanistan. In other words, in less than two years, US 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 US 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 US troops from Afghanistan. ("After eighteen 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 US forces.

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 US 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 US combat troops, followed by all US 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.

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