The public clash between Obama and his top general in Afghanistan
highlight the difficulties US imperialism is facing in what is clearly
an unwinnable war. What the general has done is to express in public
what is normally reserved for private conversation, but it does bring
out clearly the impasse the US is facing in Afghanistan.
Stone magazine on June 22nd has caused a political
furore in the States. In private, generals of all countries do not
refrain from the most blistering criticisms of politics. They are
essentially simple men who imagine that all wars can be solved by
blasting away with rockets and rapid-fire machine guns. And their view
of politics is no different from their views on wars.
The contempt of the military mind for all politicians finds its
mirror image in the contempt felt by many politicians for the
limitations of the military mind. It was Clemenceau who said that “war
is too important a matter to be left to the military”. And if I am not
mistaken, it was President Truman who was firmly convinced that his
generals were unable to march and chew gum at the same time.
However, it is one thing for a serving general to voice sceptical
opinions about his political masters in private. It is another thing
altogether when these views are made public in a magazine that is widely
quoted in all the media, nationally and internationally.
The row that has exploded between President Obama and the commander
of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal
indicates the fraught relations between the US political Establishment
and the generals, which has serious implications for the future.
The gentle art…
There is a famous book called The gentle art of winning friends
and influencing people. We do not know whether the general has read
this book, but it would have been useful when he recently went to
France to sell his new war strategy to America’s NATO allies, or, as
the Rolling Stone article put it, “to keep up the fiction, in
essence, that we actually have allies.”
Everybody knows that the war in Afghanistan is going badly. The total
death toll of the coalition forces is almost two thousand, over a
thousand of them American. McChrystal is in Paris “to keep the French,
who have lost more than 40 soldiers in Afghanistan, from going all
wobbly on him.”
The magazine continues:
“Since McChrystal took over a year ago, the Afghan war has become the
exclusive property of the United States. Opposition to the war has
already toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of
Germany’s president and sparked both Canada and the Netherlands to
announce the withdrawal of their 4,500 troops.”
McChrystal is outspoken and, like many of his kind, he is unused to
the subtleties of diplomacy, particularly of the Parisian kind. This
being France, the country of haute cuisine and exquisite
diplomacy, the most important business was to be conducted over truffles
and champagne in a four-star suite at the Hôtel Westminster in Paris.
The article in Rolling Stone magazine describes the setting in
which the high drama is about to be enacted:
“The general stands and looks around the suite that his traveling
staff of 10 has converted into a full-scale operations center. The
tables are crowded with silver Panasonic Toughbooks, and blue cables
crisscross the hotel’s thick carpet, hooked up to satellite dishes to
provide encrypted phone and e-mail communications. Dressed in
off-the-rack civilian casual – blue tie, button-down shirt, dress slacks
– McChrystal is way out of his comfort zone. Paris, as one of his
advisers says, is the ‘most anti-McChrystal city you can imagine.’ The
general hates fancy restaurants, rejecting any place with candles on the
tables as too ‘Gucci.’ He prefers Bud Light Lime (his favorite beer) to
Being more accustomed to burgers and (admittedly French) fries than
the kind of food served up in this high class hotel where, on a Thursday
night in mid-April, the general, who is sitting with his chief of
staff, Col. Charlie Flynn, turning to the latter, asks a somewhat
”How’d I get screwed into going to this dinner?"
"The dinner comes with the position, sir," answers Flynn.
McChrystal turns sharply in his chair.
"Hey, Charlie," he asks, "does this come with the position?" And the
general shows him his middle finger in a gesture very familiar to New
York cab drivers but not usually associated with diplomacy between the
Great Powers. He delivers new pearls of wisdom:
"I’d rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to
He pauses for a moment.
"Unfortunately," he adds, "no one in this room could do it."
Obama and the generals
In the brief twelve month period he has been in charge of the war,
McChrystal has succeeded brilliantly in treading on the toes of almost
everyone involved in it. Evidently he was far more comfortable killing
people than dining in French hotels. Before President Obama gave him the
running of the war in Afghanistan, he spent five years running the
Pentagon’s clandestine “black operations” involving murder, torture,
kidnapping and other such simple and meritorious activities that do not
over-tax the brain, delivering excellent results and saving a lot of
During his election campaign one of Barack Obama’s most important
promises on foreign policy was to bring the war in Afghanistan to a
successful conclusion. In March 2009 he announced: "I want the American
people to understand. We have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt,
dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan." This is
easier said than done. His first step was to order another 21,000 troops
to Kabul, the largest increase since the war began in 2001.
The general’s first meeting with Obama, one week after he took
office, was in a room at the Pentagon known as the Tank where the
president met with a dozen senior military. According to people with
knowledge of the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked "uncomfortable
and intimidated" by the roomful of top military men. This observation
faithfully reflects the relation between most politicians and the
generals – but particularly Social Democrats and “progressive”
Taking the advice of the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
Obama sacked Gen. David McKiernan, the U.S. and NATO commander in
Afghanistan, and replaced him with McChrystal. No top general had been
relieved from duty during wartime since Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas
MacArthur at the height of the Korean War more than 50 years ago.
Obama did not even know who the new man was. Four months later, after
Obama had put him in charge of Afghanistan, they had their first
one-on-one meeting in the Oval Office. An adviser to McChrystal recalls:
"It was a 10-minute photo op. Obama clearly didn’t know anything about
him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his fucking war, but
he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed."
Who is McChrystal?
McChrystal studied at the famous military academy of West Point in 1972,
where he passed out as 298 out of a class of 855. Although this may be
seen as a mediocre result, he earned the admiration of his classmates
for his considerable skills at drinking and partying. He wrote a short
story called "Brinkman’s Note," about a terrorist who, pretending to be a
secret service agent, infiltrates the White House and successfully
caries out his plot to assassinate the president. Significantly,
perhaps, it was written in the first person singular.
During the invasion of Iraq, when he was a Pentagon spokesperson,
McChrystal justified the notorious statement of Rumsfeld on the looting
of Baghdad that “stuff happens”. When a US Ranger, corporal Tillman, was
accidentally killed by his own troops in Afghanistan in April 2004,
McChrystal took an active role in creating the impression that the man
had been killed by enemy fire. He signed a falsified recommendation for a
Silver Star that suggested Tillman had died at the hands of Taliban
Later, McChrystal sent a memo up the chain of command, specifically
warning that President Bush should avoid mentioning the cause of
Tillman’s death. "If the circumstances of Corporal Tillman’s death
become public," he wrote, it could cause "public embarrassment" for the
president. Nine days after Tillman’s death, McChrystal was promoted to
The Joint Special Operations Command, the elite forces that
McChrystal headed, carries out the government’s darkest operations.
During the Iraq surge, his team killed and captured thousands of
insurgents, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in
Iraq. In 2006, McChrystal was involved in a scandal involving the abuse
and torture of detainees at Camp Nama in Iraq. Prisoners at the camp
were subjected to torture in the form of stress positions, being dragged
naked through the mud, etc. Although an interrogator at the camp
reported seeing him inspect the prison multiple times, McChrystal was
In May 2009, as McChrystal prepared for his confirmation hearings,
his staff prepared him for difficult questions about Camp Nama and the
Tillman cover-up. But the scandals were hushed up, and McChrystal was
soon on his way back to Kabul to run the war in Afghanistan.
What is COIN?
McChrystal had very definite views on how to win the war in
Afghanistan, based on a military strategy known as counterinsurgency, or
COIN, as it has been baptised by the elite that controls the Pentagon.
The military has a decided preference for brute force as a means for
settling all problems. COIN therefore demanded the sending of huge
numbers of ground troops to the theatre of war.
With the aid of the most modern and sophisticated technology, such as
the unmanned drones that drop bombs, they have killed a lot of people.
"JSOC was a killing machine," says Maj. Gen. Mayville, his chief of
operations. Unfortunately, the “killing machine” has killed a lot of
Afghan civilians, and for every innocent person you kill, you create 10
In the first four months of this year, NATO forces killed some 90
civilians, an increase of 76 percent from the same period in 2009. This
kind of thing does little to improve the attitude of the population that
COIN in theory is supposed to be winning over. In February, a Special
Forces night raid ended in the deaths of two pregnant Afghan women,
followed by a cover-up. In April, protests erupted in Kandahar after
U.S. forces shot up a bus, killing five Afghans. "We’ve shot an amazing
number of people," McChrystal recently stated. He has thus become the
number one recruiting sergeant for the insurgents.
But even the most incorrigible optimists have to admit that this task
will require years, if not decades. And since Afghanistan is what is
known as a “failed state”, and since Washington would like this failed
state to provide soldiers to do all the fighting and dying instead of
American ones, the mission must also entail reconstructing the Afghan
state and society. This is slightly more complicated than sending drones
to drop bombs on people.
It also means that generals, in addition to killing a lot of people,
must master the skills of diplomacy and politics, which, after all, to
paraphrase Clausewitz, is only the continuation of warfare by other
means. Overnight, the Green Berets became an armed Peace Corps! John
Wayne must be turning in his grave.
There is unfortunately a serious flaw in this logic. It was
understood long ago by Robespierre, who pointed out that people do not
like missionaries armed with bayonets. And in no country in the world is
this assertion truer than in Afghanistan, as every invader from
Alexander the Great onwards has found out to their cost. In this
context, the “theory” of COIN was simply mad. "The entire COIN strategy
is a fraud perpetuated on the American people," says Douglas Macgregor, a
retired colonel and leading critic of counterinsurgency who attended
West Point with McChrystal. "The idea that we are going to spend a
trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter
Blackmailing the President
McChrystal had already had occasion to test his theories in Iraq. It
was very simple: find out how your enemy operates, be faster and more
ruthless than them, and wipe them off the face of the earth. As soon as
he arrived in Afghanistan last June, the general produced a report that
was leaked to the press, presenting a dire picture of the situation: If
he didn’t get another 40,000 troops (practically doubling the number of
U.S. forces in Afghanistan) there was a danger of "mission failure."
This was a blatant attempt to twist the President’s arm: either he
did what the general wanted, or Obama would appear as weak. It was a
case of the White House versus the Pentagon, and the Pentagon was
determined to win. In reply, Obama announced a three-month review to
re-evaluate the strategy in Afghanistan. Vice President Biden argued
that a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan would plunge
America into a quagmire without achieving the objective of defeating
On December 1st, in a speech at West Point, Obama explained why
fighting the war in Afghanistan was a bad idea: It was expensive. There
was an economic crisis; along-term commitment would undermine American
power. Al Qaeda had shifted its base of operations to Pakistan. Then,
having made out a very good case against stepping up the war in
Afghanistan, Obama announced that he would send an additional 30,000
troops. McChrystal got almost all he wanted. In the conflict between the
White House and the generals, the latter had won.
The general, it seems, sleeps just four hours a night, runs seven
miles each morning, and eats only one meal a day. But it is far from
clear that the ability to go without sleep and food is an effective
recipe for winning the war in Afghanistan. The Rolling Stone
article contains a very interesting description of the US general staff:
“The general’s staff is a handpicked collection of killers, spies,
geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs.”
McChrystal told the Rolling Stone journalist: “All these men…
I’d die for them. And they’d die for me.”
Happily, the general and his heroic staff are not faced with such an
unpleasant prospect and will probably all live to a ripe old age. But
many of the unfortunate young people who come from poor working class
areas of New York and Michigan and join the armed forces to escape
poverty and unemployment may never return home.
The mood of the troops
The most decisive element in the equation is the morale of the
troops. They feel frustrated at the lack of progress and their morale is
sapped by the knowledge that the war is deeply unpopular at home. The
attempts of McChrystal to combat their scepticism have not succeeded, as
the following extract shows:
“Underneath a tent, the general has a 45-minute discussion with some
two dozen soldiers. The atmosphere is tense. ‘I ask you what’s going on
in your world, and I think it’s important for you all to understand the
big picture as well,’ McChrystal begins. ‘How’s the company doing? You
guys feeling sorry for yourselves? Anybody? Anybody feel like you’re
losing?’ McChrystal says.
" ‘Sir, some of the guys here, sir, think we’re losing, sir,’ says
“(…) During the question-and-answer period, the frustration boils
over. The soldiers complain about not being allowed to use lethal force,
about watching insurgents they detain be freed for lack of evidence.
They want to be able to fight – like they did in Iraq, like they had in
Afghanistan before McChrystal. ‘We aren’t putting fear into the
Taliban,’ one soldier says.
“(…) As the discussion ends, McChrystal seems to sense that he hasn’t
succeeded at easing the men’s anger. He makes one last-ditch effort to
reach them, acknowledging the death of Cpl. Ingram. ‘There’s no way I
can make that easier,’ he tells them. ‘No way I can pretend it won’t
hurt. No way I can tell you not to feel that…. I will tell you, you’re
doing a great job. Don’t let the frustration get to you.’ The session
ends with no clapping, and no real resolution. McChrystal may have sold
President Obama on counterinsurgency, but many of his own men aren’t
The Pentagon has been planning to launch a major military operation
this summer in Kandahar. It was supposed to be a decisive turning point –
the main justification for the extra troops that McChrystal demanded,
and got, from Obama late last year. But on June 10th the general
announced that he is postponing the offensive until the autumn. Now the
idea is to send the Afghan police and army into Kandahar, while the U.S.
pours $90 million of aid into the city to win over the civilian
But the new plan does not have many admirers. "The Taliban have a
jackboot on the city," a military official was reported as saying. "We
have to remove them, but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t alienate
the population." He adds: "There aren’t going to be doors kicked in."
Other U.S. officials insist that doors are going to be kicked
in, but that “it’s going to be a kinder, gentler offensive than the
disaster in Marja”.
Here the fundamental flaws of counterinsurgency are cruelly exposed.
After nine years of war, the Taliban simply remains too strongly
entrenched for the U.S. military to attack Kandahar directly. They hope
to pass the hot potato to the Afghan army and police. But nobody
believes that this is possible. President Karzai, used his influence to
delay the offensive. The U.S. army will have to enter Kandahar and kick
doors down. But they will take care to kick them down in a kinder
and gentler manner. It is sufficient to state the question to
see how idiotic it is.
The central difficulty is easily expressed: the Afghan people do not
want the foreign forces in their country. The huge amounts of money
aimed at bribing the population only serve to fuel corruption,
aggravating the feelings of resentment and hostility among the people,
who see little or nothing of the aid that flows directly into the bank
accounts of Karzai and his family and stooges.
The strategy of counterinsurgency will succeed only in creating a
situation of perpetual war. Obama never speaks of "victory" in
Afghanistan because no victory is possible, as the British learned over a
hundred years ago. Sooner or later the Americans and their allies will
have to get out of Afghanistan. But before that happens, the bloody and
intractable conflict will be the cause of more than one political crisis
in America and the rest of the world.
An unwinnable war
The splits in the ranks of the American establishment are shown by
the clashes between McChrystal and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. Ambassador
in Afghanistan. In January, Eikenberry wrote a classified cable that was
leaked to The New York Times, which made a brutal criticism of
McChrystal’s strategy. The ambassador dismissed President Hamid Karzai
as "not an adequate strategic partner," and cast doubt on whether the
counterinsurgency plan would be "sufficient" to deal with Al Qaeda. "We
will become more deeply engaged here with no way to extricate
ourselves," Eikenberry warned, "short of allowing the country to descend
again into lawlessness and chaos."
Unlike Eikenberry or Holbrooke, McChrystal enjoys excellent relations
with Hamid Karzai, the corrupt and unpopular president of Afghanistan.
Karzai, unsurprisingly, has immediately sprung to the defence of his
friend, arguing that McChrystal is “the best general America has sent to
Afghanistan” and a “trusted partner” and opposing his removal. More
importantly, McChrystal has support in the Pentagon and (it is said)
among the troops. But there are powerful figures in the White House who
are demanding his removal. At the root of the dispute are the complex
relations between the US government and the Pentagon.
McChrystal is part of a tight-knit group representing the most
powerful force shaping U.S. policy in Afghanistan. His men are in
complete command of all military aspects of the war. Many commentators
say he cannot be removed. This may or may not be true. Although the
military Establishment has colossal power, the US ruling class cannot
afford to allow them a free hand in running wars, and if a general goes
too far in pursuing his own agenda without considering the general
interests of US imperialism, he will find himself in a state of
comfortable but impotent retirement.
The war in Afghanistan cannot be won. In February of this year a
major offensive was launched to retake the southern town of Marja. But
despite all the terrifying firepower of the US army, the fighting
continues to drag on. McChrystal himself has referred to it as a
"bleeding ulcer." Even as McChrystal prepares for an offensive in
southern Afghanistan, the prospects for any kind of success look ever
more distant. The death toll for U.S. troops rises inexorably. Hundreds
of billions of dollars have been spent with absolutely no result. The
attempts to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population have
failed miserably. With every drone that kills innocent civilians, the
hatred of ordinary Afghans towards the foreign interlopers grows.
Obama may remove his unruly general in order to show that he is a
strong President (he is criticized for being weak over the oil slick
crisis). Or he may decide to let McChrystal continue with his plan. If
his strategy does not work – and it will not work the USA will be in
serious difficulties. America and its president are stuck in a quagmire.
But Obama can blame his general for the defeat.
Despite the financial crisis, military spending continues at an
astronomical level. The US Department of Defense enjoys a budget in
excess of $600 billion a year. In Afghanistan, the imperialists are
entangled in an unwinnable conflict. The U.S. is now spending there more
than in Iraq. But the insurgents are collecting up to $400m a year from
the opium trade and have almost unlimited reserves of money, arms and
manpower from Pakistan.
In June, the number of US troops killed passed the thousand mark.
Afghanistan has now displaced Vietnam as the longest war in American
history. Obama has quietly dropped the deadline for withdrawing U.S.
troops in July of next year. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, together
with the effects of the economic crisis, will serve to increase the
instability in the USA and in Europe. Apart from being an enormous drain
on the economy, there will be one shock after another.
Before the outbreak of the Second World War, with astonishing
prescience, Leon Trotsky predicted that the USA would emerge as the main
victor in the coming conflict, and that it would dominate the entire
world, but it would have dynamite built into its foundations. The 11th
September, and the calamitous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan
have shown how right he was.