Best Performance in a Farce

Within the last 11 months, while 500 coalition soldiers have perished and thousands have been wounded on the battlefields of Afghanistan, the Obama administration has treated the rest of us to an elaborate, Oscar-worthy performance of how to act in charge from the back seat of a car.

In other words, instead of approving the tens of thousands more in reinforcements military leaders said they needed to win right away, the president spent most of 2009 trying to look deliberative and in charge – and pleasing no one. Turns out the escalation was hardwired from the beginning. He’ll do what the military wanted all along.

It makes one wonder which is worse – the escalation itself, or leaving the operation foundering in virtual limbo for a year while this kabuki theater ran its course. They both stink.

The Washington Post figured it out this weekend – sort of – and came to this conclusion in Monday’s paper:

"When he finishes testifying on Capitol Hill this week, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, will return to Kabul to implement a war strategy that is largely unchanged after a three-month-long White House review of the conflict. …

"[O]ther than a decision not to double immediately the size of Afghanistan’s uniformed security forces and the president’s pledge to begin withdrawing forces by July 2011, a deadline that has grown less firm since he announced it – [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates said Sunday it might involve only a ‘handful’ of troops – the new approach does not order McChrystal to wage the war in a fundamentally different way from what he outlined in an assessment he sent the White House in late August.

“‘Stan’s mission really hasn’t narrowed,’ said a senior Pentagon official involved with Afghanistan policy. ‘There won’t be a radical change in the way he executes.'”

We should have seen this coming down 7th Avenue like Clifford the Big Red Dog on Thanksgiving Day. All the harbingers and signposts were there along the way, pointing to an uninterrupted, military-heavy occupation through 2010. We can now look back at the verbal roundelays, the leaked reports, the titillating Bob Woodward "scoops," the endless strategy "reviews," and the lack of authority on the diplomatic front and say, ah… we should have known Obama would cave.

When people declare that "hindsight is 20-20," they usually mean to relieve you, themselves, and everyone else from the guilt of being so susceptible to the political mugging in the first place. And in the case of Obama, many of us were. But let’s face it: if there were more than just bloated gasbags and venal paper dolls representing us in Washington today (with a few exceptions), we might have been able to "get the hook" to stop this farce before summer vacation.

Instead, we are left at the end of 2009 with a path of poison bread crumbs and the Long War spirits of Christmas past, present, and yet to come, shadowy companions on the treacherous path of lessons never learned.

So while you’re trying to stomach the inevitable smooching sounds during McChrystal’s visit to Congress this week, don’t be fooled by pusillanimous Democrats and their suddenly knitted-brows; most of them will rubber-stamp anything the military asks for, anyway. Harder to watch will be the bloviating Republicans praising McChrystal for his brilliance and sacrifice, or worse, for indulging the administration while it "dithered" on the "new" policy.

Remember, it isn’t real, just more Oscar-baiting performances, the success of which depends on the gullibility and, of course, passivity of the audience. Everything about the so-called "Af-Pak strategy" is a foregone conclusion. Just check the program you’ve been grasping in your hand for the last year:

1. The military was "digging in" for the long haul anyway. As Obama was getting adjusted to his new digs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January, Walter Pincus at the Washington Post published an interesting item about the quickened pace of building and a flurry of bids going out to contractors for new and expanded Army infrastructure. While it was mostly billed as necessary for accommodating the existing troop presence and new personnel already pledged, even Pincus said the breadth of the projects seemed long-term.

"Massive construction of barracks, training areas, headquarters, warehouses, and airfields for use by U.S. and Afghan security forces – which could reach $4 billion – signals a long-term U.S. military commitment at a time when the incoming Obama administration’s policy for the Afghan war is unclear."

In fact, in October, more than a month before Obama announced the 30,000-troop escalation, Pincus reported that the Pentagon was asking for another $1.3 billion – on top of the $2.7 billion already spent in the last three years – "to ensure the country’s infrastructure can support American and coalition personnel in 2010 and years beyond."

More recently, but still before the president’s "new strategy" was announced, Nick Turse cogently described what appear to be the elements of a very long-term occupation. Like Pincus, he points to the ever expanding Bagram Air Base:

"To keep up with its exponential growth rate, more than $200 million in construction projects are planned or in-progress at this moment on just the Air Force section of the base. ‘Seven days a week, concrete trucks rumble along the dusty perimeter road of this air base as bulldozers and backhoes reshape the rocky earth,’ Chuck Crumbo of The State reported recently. ‘Hundreds of laborers slap mortar onto bricks as they build barracks and offices. Four concrete plants on the base have operated around the clock for 18 months to keep up with the construction needs.’"

But it’s not just Bagram. There are also the Kandahar airfield and the forward operating bases (FOBs), the exact number of which nobody knows. Turse nails down current contracts for the expansion and new construction of at least eight FOBs. Some of these contracts, he reports, aren’t scheduled for completion until at least 2011.

"Forget for a moment the ‘debates’ in Washington over Afghan War policy and, if you just focus on the construction activity and the flow of money into Afghanistan, what you see is a war that, from the point of view of the Pentagon, isn’t going to end any time soon," Turse wrote.

2. Diplomacy was handicapped from the start. If there was any early competition for the direction of the Afghanistan war – diplomatic or military – that was over months ago. The COINdinistas like to patronizingly talk about the "whole of government" approach when it’s politically expedient. But again, it’s not real. We all know where the bread is buttered these days: defense spending outpaced international affairs at the State Department 17 to 1 in 2009, according to Lawrence Korb at the Center for American Progress.

Of course Obama & Co. blew in with high hopes, brandishing what they thought was a serious diplomatic arsenal, with Hillary Clinton, Dennis Ross, and especially Richard "The Bulldozer" Holbrooke at the spear tip. They no doubt envisioned long tabletops and colorful shuras, hard-nosed and even feisty negotiations, which would all culminate in some photo-ready handshake and a Dayton-like accord. So far, crickets. And the "civilian surge?" It has been plagued by low recruitment, lack of experience, and again, a shortfall in resources.

So now the military says it is "forced" to take over public diplomacy and to dominate the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. The burdens are enormous.

3. You and what Army, Obama? For argument’s sake, let’s say the president came into office with some vague notion of rethinking the neo-colonial impulses of the previous administration. But as reports dating back to the spring indicate, Obama’s chances of asserting himself against the Pentagon’s schoolyard bullies and their hardwired plans were about as good as Ben Shockley’s odds of getting prostitute Gus Mally back to Phoenix alive in The Gauntlet. At least they made it. From the looks of things, Obama’s political armor is about as shot up today as that inner-city bus Shockley was forced to commandeer – and he is no closer to appearing in charge of the war than he was a year ago.

First, he let go of Gen. David McKiernan in a publicly humiliating termination that left career military types scratching their heads. He replaced him with Gen. Stanley "Zen Man Hunter" McChrystal, a sanctioned disciple of Gen. David Petraeus’ COIN doctrine, and promptly set himself into a curiously submissive role that lasts to this day.

One could say Obama’s "last throes" of independence came with one of Bob Woodward’s tendentious insider chronicles in June, just as 4,000 fresh Marines launched a new operation into Helmand province. According to Woodward, James L. Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, had traveled to Afghanistan that month and warned the generals there not to ask for additional troops. But it didn’t take long for Jones to "clarify" his position in deference to "the generals," pointed out writer Michael Cohen at in July.

Smelling blood, McChrystal’s (unnamed) handlers rushed to tell the the Washington Post that the general believed America would "lose the war" if more troops weren’t supplied, establishing the military’s dominance over the narrative from then on. "If anyone was perhaps operating under the assumption that the U.S. role in Afghanistan was going to begin winding down in 18-24 months – as I once foolishly did – this article should quickly disabuse you of that notion," wrote Cohen.

In the meantime, McChrystal’s summertime "review" of the situation in Afghanistan, which we know now was written by a coterie of mostly think-tankers, largely pro-COIN and sympathetic to the Long War vision, was mysteriously – but not surprisingly – leaked to Bob Woodward in September. The report – again, no surprises here – called for more troops and more time and resources to train Afghan security forces.

This prompted a new chorus by reanimated neoconservatives and their freshly fanged comrades in Congress: the still-wet-behind-the-ears-president isn’t listening to his generals on the ground.

"Had Petraeus and McChrystal deliberately leaked the Afghan report and recommendations under Eisenhower, LBJ, Nixon, or Reagan, McChrystal would have been fired immediately and Petraeus reprimanded, if not also eventually relieved," said military analyst retired Col. Douglas Macgregor, critic of the Afghan war and author of the recently published Warrior’s Rage, in an e-mail exchange with "Unfortunately, Obama failed to respond to what was an obvious challenge to his authority as commander in chief."

My colleague at The American Conservative Dennis Dale said it best over the weekend, when describing the capping moment to a year of struggle, which Obama symbolically lost before his audience at West Point:

"Under political duress, the president has accepted the role of conditional, if not yet nominal, commander in chief, surrendering an authority he doesn’t want and wouldn’t know what to do with anyway. Now he bites his nails and waits, like the rest of us."

Like the rest of us watching a horror movie. But at least we know the plot. The question is, do we spend the rest of the year and 2010 with our hands covering our eyes, afraid to look at the screen – or do we finally take a stand and walk out of the theater?

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.