War Without End?

General Petraeus Promised Afghan Operations Would Wind Down Next July. Did He Mean It?

General David Petraeus, the man who replaced General Stanley McChrystal when McChrystal was sacked last month for insubordinate criticism of his civilian superiors, denies that President Barack Obama has given him the assignment to “to seek a graceful exit” from America’s war against the Taliban. Petraeus is determined to win. He will need additional time and material to succeed, he says, but at the end of August or early September “we will have the inputs about right,” and, with the campaign plan drawn up by himself and General McChrystal “perfected,” victory will be at hand.

Actually, he doesn’t quite have the history right. Obama was elected on a campaign promise to fight the “right war” in Afghanistan while closing down the wrong war in Iraq. When he arrived in Washington, he found that Petraeus, theater commander for both Iraq and Afghanistan, already had a plan that the new president was expected to follow.

Obama was told that the prospective Afghanistan commander, McChrystal, would go to Kabul for consultations and return to Washington to present the plan he and Petraeus had already drawn up. It would call for a new “surge” of troops (which had been publicized as a success in Iraq). It would require more than one hundred thousand reinforcements, plus what has become roughly an equivalent force of civilian military contractors, many of them non-Americans, who are less expensive and more dispensable than regular soldiers.

Obama asked the generals if this plan would assure victory in Afghanistan within eighteen months, so that U.S. troops could begin their withdrawal from that country in July 2011. “No problem, Sir,” seems to have been their answer. Improbable as it was, that is what the press and administration spokesmen said the generals promised Obama, and the president shook their hands and said that all sounded great.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates seems to be the only person, aside from a few journalists and other critics, who actually remembers that promise. Petraeus suggested during his recent tour of American TV news programs that sending troops home a year from now might be a little premature. Secretary Gates then intervened to say that the promise given the president in 2009 by the military commanders would be kept. (Gates, a Republican, may no longer be in Washington by then.) That was a striking contradiction at a moment when foreign military casualties in Afghanistan since 2001 have passed two thousand, and Afghan civilian casualties have risen sharply—the majority killed by insurgents. (NATO under both McChrystal and now Petraeus is attempting to limit the use of air strikes because of civilian casualties).

NATO recently has been having difficulty holding ground because of the insurgents’ classic tactic of allowing foreign troops to occupy territory, then infiltrating enemy forces to sometimes devastating effect. The Dutch have left the NATO command because of public pressure at home; the Canadians are scheduled to go; and the new British government is very unhappy with the situation. To most European governments, this is a pointless and politically poisonous war that is inherently impossible to “win.” Who surrenders to whom? Better to let Afghan President Hamid Karzai (who already said he wants foreign military contractors out of the country by the end of the year) carry on with his attempts to negotiate with the Taliban, and encourage Afghanistan’s vulnerable neighboring states to work on developing regional security arrangements. They have to live with Afghanistan. The United States is on the other side of the world.

Not only is the war in Afghanistan being reinforced and perpetuated by the Obama administration, but the globalist militarism that remains the dominant force among the U.S. policy class in Washington—including Democrats—now has its members talking to the press about the new use of “the scalpel” against America’s enemies, rather than “the hammer.” John O. Brennan, reportedly the president’s “top counterterrorism advisor,” says the scalpel is an international program of assassination of America’s enemies, intended to become a “multigenerational” asset in America’s apparently permanent war to make peace. This will be promoted to the U.S. electorate as a better idea than invading countries like Yemen, Somalia, or Mauritania, overturning their governments, installing a puppet president, and building democracy from scratch.

One recent political assassination mission was against “Al Qaeda in Yemen”—the new name for one of the many factions that have been waging regional, sectarian, tribal, and ideological wars in that country since the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1922 (and probably since the Queen of Sheba ruled in the first millennium B.C.). The attack succeeded in killing, among others, the much respected vice governor of the province, who was visiting these militants to convince them to give up their war. The president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was livid, and paid a blood price to the tribe from which his late subordinate originated. 

Last December, another scalpel-like U.S. mission in Yemen attacked a supposed Al Qaeda training camp. Cluster bombs were used (internationally illegal, but employed by the United States in the interest of efficiency). The attack extended to a neighboring desert nomad encampment. Videos of murdered children and women were quickly transmitted by the media-savvy insurgents to Qatar television and Al Jazeera.

So it goes in Obama and the Pentagon’s search for better ways to wage war for democracy.

© 2010 by Tribune Media Services International. All Rights Reserved.

Related: Strategic Disarray, by William Pfaff
Read more of our Afghanistan coverage here.

William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads