Wednesday, 23 June 2010

A quote too far?

In the closing stages of the film, A Bridge Too Far, we saw Generals Urqhart and Browning starting to distance themselves from what was then evident as a military disaster, with Browning uttering the immortal words: "I always felt we tried to go a bridge too far."

There seems to me to be something of this with Gen Stanley McChrystal and his interview with Rolling Stone magazine. With the man admitting that everything said was on the record, and the magazine checking back with the General's aides before using the quotes, we have on the face of it an example of a senior soldier committing professional suicide.

Reading the article, however, one finds that McChrystal, like other advocates of COIN, readily acknowledges that counterinsurgency campaigns are inherently messy, expensive and easy to lose. "Even Afghans are confused by Afghanistan," he says.

But even if he somehow manages to succeed, after years of bloody fighting with Afghan kids who pose no threat to the US homeland, the war will do little to shut down al Qaeda, which has shifted its operations to Pakistan.

Dispatching 150,000 troops to build new schools, roads, mosques and water-treatment facilities around Kandahar is like trying to stop the drug war in Mexico by occupying Arkansas and building Baptist churches in Little Rock. "It's all very cynical, politically," says Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer who has extensive experience in the region. "Afghanistan is not in our vital interest – there's nothing for us there."

"Throwing money at the problem exacerbates the problem," says Andrew Wilder, an expert at Tufts University who has studied the effect of aid in southern Afghanistan.

"A tsunami of cash fuels corruption, delegitimizes the government and creates an environment where we're picking winners and losers" – a process that fuels resentment and hostility among the civilian population. So far, counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war.

To break out of this acknowledged "quagmire" we are seeing perhaps a subtle if not devious ploy, on the lines of the "bridge too far" excuse. As did the British military in Iraq, the US military are going to need an alibi and a "scapegoat" – they need to dump the blame on the politicians.

McChrystal has put Obama in an impossible position. With the president's popularity evaporating, if he fires McChrystal – still a popular General – he takes the blame for when the campaign finally falls apart. If he doesn't fire our Stan, in effect he is endorsing (or not denying) the "contemptuous" comments about the National Security Team, which can then be held responsible for the disasters to come. Obama still gets it.

Basically, it's a win-win for the military, and a sign that the military has lost faith in its own ability to prevail in Afghanistan. The end is nigh and McChrystal may be signalling that all that matters now is who takes the blame.

Comment: Afghanistan thread