By Philip Giraldi, Campaign For Liberty, Aug 3, 2009
In “Julius Caesar” Shakespeare’s Brutus counsels “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken on the flood, leads on to fortune.” Shakespeare was describing how powerful men seeking yet more power, blinded by hubris, collectively brought about the destruction of the very republic that they claimed to love. Brutus was urging his fellow conspirator Cassius to fight the forces of Anthony and Octavian on the following day at Philippi in the belief that one more battle would end the civil war that had begun with the assassination of Caesar. Brutus concludes his exhortation with a personal note revealing that for all his high mindedness he was not unmindful of the lure of military glory, “omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.” As has become increasingly clear to many, in “Julius Caesar” Shakespeare could have as easily been writing about contemporary America as the Roman Republic.
Who can doubt that Washington has recently had more than its share of would be heroes seeking the flood tide that will lift them up to feast in Valhalla. More often than not, that tide has been provided by war and more often than not the decision to cast the die on the battlefield has proven to be an error, leading to a languishing “in shallows and in miseries” for the entire American people. The latest call to arms is coming from the new American Caesar in Central Asia, General Stanley McChrystal who has a plan. McChrystal believes that Afghanistan can be redeemed after eight years of failure if only the United States provides more soldiers and the Afghans can be induced to dramatically increase the size of their own army and police forces. There are several fundamental problems with the McChrystal vision, starting with the fact that the Afghan government cannot even afford to pay for the army and police forces that it already has. Also, the offensive currently taking place in Afghanistan is demonstrating that it is difficult to make progress in an environment where the local population, having been pounded by US air power for the past seven years, is unrelentingly hostile.
But McChrystal thinks he can fix all that by putting more American boots on the ground, reasoning that mixing with the local population rather than pummeling them from the air will prove beneficial. Of course, the good general might discover that the presence of a lot of occupying troops who do not speak the local language and have no knowledge of indigenous customs might not prove an unmitigated blessing, particularly when they have to call in the helicopter gunships to blast the locals whenever they get in trouble. American ability to deal with local cultures has never been a strong point. I recall the advice of my old sergeant from Alabama back in 1969 when I was a member of the US Army’s Berlin Brigade. “If you don’t understand the local lingo whether it’s a gook or a kraut, just speak slowly and very loudly. They’ll figure it out.” What the locals actually figure out pretty quickly is that you don’t care enough about them to even learn out how to order a cup of tea and they act accordingly.
What is most curious about the McChrystal solution, which threatens to involve the US in Central Asia until 2020, is how the decision was made to add more soldiers. In true Washington fashion, McChrystal convened a sixty day review to look at the problem. Some members of the commission like Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security are highly respectable independent thinkers, but some of the other choices are the same people who advised George Bush, drawn from places like The American Enterprise Institute. It is important to note that the advisory group was selected to reflect a certain diversity of opinion in tactical terms, but no one was selected to represent an alternative viewpoint, i.e. that the US should leave Afghanistan as soon as possible. It was a group designed to say “yes.” Not a single board member was opposed to the Iraq War before it began, has spoken out publicly against plans to fight Iran, or has recommended that withdrawal from Afghanistan might be in the US national interest. Not one. So what kind of result did McChrystal expect? The result he got, which is to increase troop levels and deepen America’s commitment to a war that is likely being lost.
Two of the commission members are particularly odd choices, the ubiquitous Kagans, husband Fred and wife Kimberly. Fred is a fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute who claims to have been a co-creator of the surge policy that was applied in Iraq. His wife Kimberly is a classic neocon entrepreneur who relied on nepotism to work her way through the system. She studied ancient history at Yale under Donald Kagan and then married his son who later claimed to be the co-author of the “surge.” She is now billed as a “military expert” by the neocon media, and apparently also by General McChrystal, in spite of her lack of any actual military experience. For the neocon “Weekly Standard” she wrote a hagiography of the plodding General Raymond Odierno called “The Patton of Counterinsurgency” which might well be considered a comedy piece but for the fact that it was serious. She writes mostly about the Middle East, but does not appear to have working knowledge of either Farsi or Arabic like many of the other so-called experts, and is president of the curiously named Institute for the Study of War.
Another commission member Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution, has written two articles on Afghanistan entitled “Insurgents are not winning in Afghanistan” and “Optimism in Afghanistan.” The former was written last summer and seems to have been an inaccurate assessment even for that time period. The latter was written last spring. Shapiro might well regret his conclusions but his getting things wrong did not exclude him from McChrystals’s review board. Jeremy speaks French and Spanish and, like the other advisors, could hardly be described as an expert on Afghanistan. In fact, there was no expert on Afghanistan present on the board and no one could speak any of the country’s several commonly used languages. If there was an expertise present it was on fighting wars from behind a desk, something that only occurs in the bizarre quasi-academic Washington beltway think tank culture. As Washington insiders have only rarely seen a war that they didn’t like, the results of McChrystal’s review were more-or-less predictable.
So should Washington follow the example of the British and other Europeans who are seeing no light at the end of the tunnel in Afghanistan and are preparing to get out? McChrystal doesn’t think so and he has assembled a cast of Washington think tank luminaries to support his call for more troops, more engagement, and lots more money to pay for the same, even if it has to be printed up in a basement somewhere and converted into treasury bonds to be sold to the Chinese. In Vietnam (and Cambodia and Laos) there came a tipping point when the military effort was widely seen as going nowhere and just not sustainable any longer. When will the American people and its newly elected president come to that same conclusion about Afghanistan (and Pakistan and …)?