Helmand in a Handbag

What, Me McWorry?” noted that by replacing Stan McChrystal with David Petraeus, Barack Obama has bought the Pentagon’s Long War agenda lock, stock, and pork barrel. “Helmand in a Handbag” discusses why it seems that our national security team is losing its woebegone wars on purpose.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal had ample reasons for wanting to get fired as top banana in the Bananastans*. The Marjah offensive that was hyped as the “test” of the Afghanistan strategy had, by his own admission, turned into a “bleeding ulcer.” He’d been forced to postpone the follow-on offensive to liberate Kandahar – called “the most critical operation of the war” – because the Kandaharis told him thanks anyway, but they were liberated enough for now. “It takes time to convince people,” McChrystal told his press entourage in early June, well aware that time was a commodity he was fresh out of.

Inside reports have it that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the fraudulent head of state of the second most corrupt country in the world, has “lost his confidence in the capability of either the coalition or his own government to protect this country.” That’s probably why he’s told us to bugger off and is looking to strike his own deal with the Taliban and arch-rival country Pakistan.

Afghan troops, whom we’ve been training for nine bloody years, still woefully suck. A January 2010 60 Minutes piece noted that “elite” Afghan Special Forces were incapable of loading their rifles or even carrying them the right way. Once their Green Beret instructors helped them load and hold their weapons, the Afghan commandos quite literally shot their instructors and themselves in the foot.

A June report by the U.S. Special Inspector General in Afghanistan says Afghan soldiers rated by their American trainers as “first class” are, in fact, incapable of fighting the Taliban on their own. Petraeus says it could take a “number of years” before Afghan forces can fight without training wheels. British Foreign Secretary William Hague says, “The Afghan forces should be able to conduct their own affairs by 2014.” That would be the same 2014 that occurs significantly later than the summer of 2011, when President Obama promised he’d begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan. The good news: Afghan security forces are already as competent as Iraq’s F Troopers will ever be.

As reported by journalist Michael Hastings in his celebrated Rolling Stone article “The Runaway General,” our NATO allies in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are a sorry squad of sad sacks as well. American soldiers mutter that ISAF stands for “I Suck at Fighting” or “In Sandals and Flip Flops.”

Throughout the command structure, our troops despair at the futility of their mission. Pfc. Jared Pautsch says, “What are we doing here?” Staff Sgt. Kenneth Hicks says, “We’re f***ing losing this thing.” A “senior adviser” to McChrystal, who didn’t have the courage to go on record like enlisted men Pautsch and Hicks did, says, “If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular.”

(By the by, if freelancer Hastings doesn’t win a Pulitzer for his Rolling Stone piece it will be because the access-poisoned stenographers who cover the military full time for Big News pressured their pals on the committee into screwing him out of it.)

Nobody understands what the hell we’re doing there. McChrystal says, “Even Afghans are confused by Afghanistan.” And yet, remarkably, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said at a 24 June press conference, “I do not believe we are bogged down.” Gates does, however, believe in Santa. At the same propaganda opportunity, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen insisted that, “The strategy hasn’t changed in any way. Nor has the policy.”

It’s comforting, I suppose, to hear that our senior military officer understands that there’s a difference – or at least there’s supposed to be a difference – between policy and strategy. One is hard pressed to define what the difference between the two is exactly. Even the U.S. Naval War College, which has an entire department and curriculum called Policy and Strategy, is suspiciously ambiguous on the topic. “The Strategy and Policy Course is designed to teach students to think strategically,” our most prestigious institute of higher war learning vaguely explains. Maybe that’s why the brainiacs in charge of our national security have such a tough time coming up with coherent strategies that achieve national policy goals: too many of them studied at the Naval War College. Notable graduates include Ray “Desert Ox” Odierno and “Bananas” Stan McChrystal.

The Naval War College doesn’t say much about policy except that it’s something related to strategy. The Strategy and Policy Course probably doesn’t bother to teach students to think politically because the students who matter – future flag and general officers – already know how to think politically or they wouldn’t be on track to wear stars.

The policy/strategy model of armed conflict derives from the doctrine of 19th-century Prussian war philosopher Carl Von Clausewitz, who noted that “war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means.” It’s not wholly clear, though, what Clausewitz means by “other means” of policy. The balance-of-power political model of the Europe he knew reflected millennia of nearly constant warfare as the primary means of settling scores among the continent’s cross-pollinated aristocracy.

The same holds true of post-World War II America. We’ve become so addicted to wielding our bully force to achieve – or rather attempt to achieve – our foreign policy objectives that our ability to affect global events with economy, diplomacy, and information has atrophied. That fact bodes ill given the white-elephant reality that without a peer military competitor our armed might has become an impotent tool of policy as well.

Our policy in Afghanistan can best be framed as Obama clinging to the campaign policy he made to appease the war mongrels that he’d “get the job done” there. If the “job” consists of ridding the country of al-Qaeda, we can declare mission accomplished. Al-Qaeda already left. In fact, it left before the Petraeus mob bullied Obama into firing the previous commander, David McKiernan, and putting career assassin McChrystal in his place. If the job consists of ridding the country of the Taliban, forget it. We’d have better success trying to eradicate the world’s insect population.

If the job involves extending the Pentagon’s Era of Persistent Conflict through the entire New American Century, then by golly we’ve got a strategy/policy match made in heaven. Gates and Mullen have admonished us to have more “patience” with a strategy that is proven to create more militants than it eliminates. Change merchant Obama, apparently determined to be the first man in history to do the same thing and achieve different results, promises there will be no change in the strategy or policy come Helmand or high water. And it looks like that stuff he said about a July 2011 withdrawal date was just a manifestation of his wacky, Second City-inspired Chicagoland sense of humor. “We didn’t say we’d be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us,” he told reporters after he sentenced Stan McChrystal to a life as a retired four-star general. “We said that we’d begin a transition phase.”

Petraeus puts things more bluntly. He now says that the July 2011 date only applies to the 30,000 “surge forces” that Obama approved last year. Even so, Super Dave will only support a drawdown based on “conditions that we hoped we’d obtain.” The Teflon General didn’t go into detail as to what those conditions might be.

In related news, the end of the “combat mission” in Iraq is scheduled for next month. Everybody knows Iraq’s Beetle Bailey security forces won’t be able to pick up the combat load and that U.S. troops will do as much fighting as they did before. Not to worry, though: Gates’ bull-feather merchants have figured out a way to meet the deadline. They’ll just change the name “combat mission” to “stability operations,” which I believe is synonymous in Pentagon Newspeak with “transition phase.”

* The Bananastans are Afghanistan and Pakistan, our banana republics in Central Asia.

Author: Jeff Huber

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (retired), was a naval flight officer who commanded an aircraft squadron and was operations officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the carrier that fought the Kosovo War. Jeff earned a master of arts degree in post-modern imperialism at the U.S. Naval War College. His weekly satires on U.S. foreign policy high jinks are archived at his blog, Pen and Sword. Jeff's critically applauded novel Bathtub Admirals, a lampoon of America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now. Jeff lives with dogs in a house by the beach on Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and in the summer he has a nice tan.