The United States is currently faced with the astonishing spectacle of a uniformed military officer, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, lobbying publicly for the option he favors on an issue that is in front of President Barack Obama to decide.
The civilian president is still commander-in-chief of America’s armed forces, a point that Mr. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, stressed correctly in his various flag-draped presentations. The United States isn’t Guinea.
Anyone who has ever watched the U.S. military in action on Capitol Hill, acting in coordination with the various lobbyists who represent defense contractors and others who profit from U.S. military enterprises, knows the degree to which the Pentagon is proficient at getting its way inside both the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government.
But the whole thing is usually carried out more in line with what the military call “the chain of command.” Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, expressed a preference for that approach with reference to Gen. McChrystal’s current undertaking on a television talk show last weekend.
Lest Gen. McChrystal’s direct “general to the people” blitzkrieg be thought unique, it is important to recall the Bush administration’s sometimes extravagant use of Gen. David H. Petraeus to try to bulk up the American public’s support for its war in Iraq.
Gen. Petraeus was painted as the genius of the troop “surge,” which theoretically saved America from defeat at a low point in that unfortunate conflict, which, also unfortunately, still hasn’t ended, in spite of the efforts of Gen. Petraeus, holdover Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and others. In case anyone hasn’t noticed (there is less reporting coming now from Iraq than from Afghanistan), the Iraq war continues and there are broad hints that U.S. forces may not be able to withdraw from there as fast as Americans had hoped. This debacle will soon have lasted seven years.
There are historical precedents for U.S. generals trying to use public pressure to maneuver presidents into particular positions on issues of interest to the military. A famous one was Gen. George B. McClellan’s face-off with Abraham Lincoln over the conduct of the Civil War, which went so far that the general finally ran for president against Mr. Lincoln in 1864 and lost.
A second famous one was in 1951 when Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur pushed Harry Truman to let him attack China during the Korean War. Although Mr. Truman eventually fired him, the general did manage to engage U.S. forces in conflict with the Chinese, with basically disastrous results.
What is going on with Gen. McChrystal and Mr. Obama is that a few months after having been given command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan by Mr. Obama, Gen. McChrystal has looked at the situation and now wants 40,000 more U.S. troops. He already is authorized 68,000, so the 40,000 would constitute about a 60 percent increase. That may well be Gen. McChrystal’s honest assessment of how many troops it would take for the United States to “win” in Afghanistan — if anyone could figure out what “winning” means in that tormented country.
It is important to bear in mind that the textbook military analysis of how many troops it would take to nail down a country the size and population of Afghanistan is 480,000. The United States finally had more than 543,000 in Vietnam and didn’t win.
What is actually going on, whether Gen. McChrystal intends it to be the case or not, is that he is saying to Mr. Obama loudly and publicly, “Give me more troops. If you don’t, I’ll lose and it will be your fault.”
It also is important to look at the political situation in the United States, as well the political and military situation in Afghanistan.
First, Afghanistan. The U.S. casualty rate there is going steadily upward. That partly reflects the fact that we have more troops there, and in more difficult combat situations. It also is becoming increasingly clear that for the Afghans, the enemy is becoming less and less al-Qaida, or the Taliban and al-Qaida, and more and more the Americans. This is perfectly normal for Afghans. They don’t like foreigners in their country, especially foreigners seeking to play a dominant role. Ask Alexander the Great, the British and the Russians. And Americans do normally try to run the show, particularly as we increase our investment in a country.
We didn’t like the way they did their elections in August. We didn’t like the result, although it is unclear who would have been more to our taste than President Hamid Karzai. We don’t like how they earn their money, mostly from illegal drugs. We would like them to do the fighting, but since that fighting would involve Afghans fighting Afghans for the most part, they are not very keen on that. On Friday we had an Afghan police officer shooting and killing two American soldiers on patrol and then escaping.
At home, after eight years, Americans are weary of the Afghan war, as well as the Iraq war. The public wonders why we continue to spend our money — upwards of a trillion dollars now — on these wars while our own economy lags, with only one job available for every six persons looking for one.
It is time to wrap up the Afghanistan war. It might be a good idea to remove Gen. McChrystal from the picture, taking him up on the part of his analysis that says, give me more troops or take me out of the game.
We don’t have to rule Afghanistan to be safe at home. If we did, we would also have to rule Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.