Will Lloyd Austin Speak Truth on Afghanistan?

Afghanistan: Stay or Go? The final decision will depend largely on whether Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin can face down white White House armchair warriors allergic to "losing" wars already long lost, as well as arms makers profiteering on the ones that drag on for decades.

Austin has had up-close experience with both of these centers of power. But he has also seen – and borne more immediate responsibility for – the bloody consequences. Can he draw the proper lessons from the pliable, lemming-like leaders – prominent among them African American males who made it to the top, but then let the white guys tell them what to do? Or will he cave – like Colin Powell on Iraq, and Barack Obama on Afghanistan?

For those of you not yet at the drinking age, Powell obeyed instructions from a lily-white White House to tell the UN Security Council a pack of lies about (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq six weeks before the U.S. invaded on March 20, 2003. President Obama inherited an ill-starred war in Afghanistan and proved to be putty in the hands of US generals and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who in late 2009 pushed for an increase of 40,000 troops.

The Urge to Surge

Obama acquiesced, but cut the number to 30,000. You see, despite the advice of US generals on the ground, in Washington surges were in vogue. Gates and a "mainstream" media enamored of him had waxed eloquent about the "surge" of 21,000 additional US troops into Iraq in 2007-08. The main purpose of that surge was to enable Bush and Cheney to leave town without having lost a war. The price? Another 1,000 troops killed. ( See: "Afghan Lessons From Iraq War".)

During his 2008 campaign for president, Obama was told to say that the surge into Iraq "succeeded beyond our wildest dreams". With that naive remark on the record, it was more difficult to say NO to Gates and the generals for a still larger, equally feckless surge – this one into Afghanistan. This, even though then Vice President Biden was reported to be a major skeptic.

Obama groused that Gates and the generals would not provide a meaningful set of alternative options to escalation. The best he could do was persuade Gates to fire Gen. Stanley McChrystal when it became public that he was mocking Obama privately. Yes, that McChrystal – the one who boasted in early 2010 that he would quickly install an Afghan "government in a box" in the key Taliban stronghold of Marja after his troops had driven the Taliban out. Risible even at the time – it, of course, never happened. If further proof were needed that generals lie about Afghanistan, skim through this masterful piece of investigative reporting by Craig Whitlock.

Going Against the "Washington Playbook"

Only once did Obama stand up to the armchair warriors, McChrystal-type generals, and those motivated by Israel’s objective of "no outcome" in Syria. ( See: "Israel Backs Limited Strike Against Syria." In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in early 2016, President Obama waxed eloquent about how proud he was to have resisted pressure from virtually all his advisers to launch cruise missiles on Syria in Sept. 2013. He had refused to follow what he derisively called the "Washington Playbook" to openly use US forces to retaliate for dubious reporting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had ordered a chemical attack near Damascus on August 20, 2013.

Obama told Goldberg that National Intelligence Director James Clapper had warned him several days later that the intelligence regarding who was responsible for the sarin attack was not a "slam dunk." (The allusion was to ex-CIA Director George Tenet’s false assurance to President George W. Bush that the intelligence on WMD in Iraq was a "slam dunk".)

Austin: a Different Kind of SecDef

  • He has a personal relationship with President Biden: Gen. Austin and Biden’s late son Beau attended Catholic services together when Beau was serving in Iraq (did Austin perhaps speak up during the prayers of the faithful: "God, show us a way out of the feckless war?") It is not known how much Joe learned from Beau, but President Biden reportedly has been most impressed by Gen. Austin’s "unflappability".
  • Unlike Generals Petraeus, McChrystal, and other glamorous generals, Austin shunned the limelight. That is said to be his mien; it may also betoken an aversion to having to paint lipstick on the pig of war. More important, when thrust before the cameras, he did not dissemble; as when he matter-of-factly admitted the ugly truth that the $500,000 US effort to train Syrian opposition soldiers resulted in putting only "four or five" trained individuals on the battlefield. Even Rachel Maddow gasped upon learning from Austin’s plainspeak congressional testimony ( See this short clip, especially the minute between 2:15 and 3:15.)
  • Been there done that; Austin was commanding general of a Light Infantry Division, as well as a combined joint task force for two years early in the war in Afghanistan.
  • Unlike his Marine predecessor James Mattis, Austin does not preen about being well-read monk. Comparisons can be invidious, but Austin has a family and knows a bit more about the world outside the military. His humble beginnings in black Alabama give him an unusual look into the situation of those less privileged, those considered less if they are black or brown. He may even be familiar with the Nov. 19, 1970 letter that James Baldwin sent Angela Davis when he saw her on the cover of Newsweek, captured and shackled, at the height of the Vietnam war:

    "As long as white Americans take refuge in their whiteness… they will allow millions of other people to be slaughtered… So long as their whiteness puts so sinister a distance between their own experience and the experience of others, they will never feel themselves sufficiently worthwhile to become responsible for themselves. As we once put it in our black church, they will perish in their sins – that is, in their delusions. …"

It may be more likely that – given his experience in Afghanistan – Austin has seen the following poem from Rudyard Kipling.

It is not wise for the Christian white

To hustle the Asian brown;

For the Christian riles

And the Asian smiles

And weareth the Christian down.

At the end of the fight

Lies a tombstone white

With the name of the late deceased;

And the epitaph drear,

A fool lies here,

Who tried to hustle the East.

In any case, it may not be unrealistic to hope that Biden, Austin, Blinken, Sullivan, and CIA-director designate Burns, at long last, "get it" and get out.

Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).