Sunday, June 27, 2010

Time to Revisit Another "Good War"

Last week's shocking dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which was triggered by the publication of disparaging remarks made by the general and his staff members regarding the Commander in Chief and other senior members of the Obama Administration, made for a good news story and led to some entertaining talk show content.  But now that the dust is settling, there is a far more important story that needs to rise to the surface of our national political discourse.

My hope is that the upcoming confirmation hearings for Gen. McChrystal's proposed replacement, Gen. David Petraeus, will force a question to be asked and answered.  It is, to paraphrase the 1971 words of a Vietnam veteran who later became a U.S. Senator, how do you once again ask someone to be the last soldier to die for a mistake?

First, a step back to the last decade . . .

The outcome of the U.S. presidential elections in both 2004 and 2008 were heavily influenced by public opinion over the Iraq War.  In 2004, a nation that was once widely supportive of the U.S. invasion of Iraq had started to grow weary of trying to find the justification for the war in the first place and support had begun to wane -- the outcome was basically a split decision at the ballot box, with the Electoral College favoring President Bush.  In 2008, the war had become protracted, the costs in lives and dollars had become too high for most Americans, and the war was opposed by three-quarters of the nation -- the outcome was a landslide for Democrats (adding to huge gains in the 2006 midterms), who almost universally campaigned against the Iraq War.

President Obama came to office in January 2009 with a clearly stated mission to draw down American troops in Iraq and to gradually de-escalate that conflict.  At the same time, he referred often to his growing concerns in Afghanistan with the reconfiguration of the Taliban, proclaiming that Afghanistan had all along been the "good war."  Whatever that means.

After a back-to-the-drawing-board process last year of revisiting the military strategy in Afghanistan -- sharply criticized for how lengthy it became -- Pres. Obama ultimately concluded that an aggressive "counterinsurgency" strategy was needed and laid down his plan in August 2009:  We're going to commit 30,000 additional troops to the fight in Afghanistan and we're going to start pulling them out by July 2011.  Gen. McChrystal was tasked with executing the new strategy.

Conservatives were enthusiastic with the war commitment but concerned about the deadline, moderates were skeptical about the build-up but willing to go along because of the deadline, while some of us on the left were very disappointed about the escalation of yet another war in the desert that seemed to offer few reasons to be optimistic this one would accomplish much more than the previous ones.

As far as I can tell, here is where we stand now . . .

This "good war" is a total mess.  The Taliban continues to grow stronger, the much-vaunted summer war surge from U.S. troops has now been delayed, American soldiers are sick of having their hands tied by a McChrystal policy of obtaining permission before they can strike targets while repeat deployments to this decade-long war have dealt them a double blow back at home, and the ultimate barometer of the price of war -- deaths of military personnel and civilians -- is ghastly.

On June 7th and 8th, 12 soldiers were killed (including five Americans) by roadside bombs, marking the deadliest 24-hour period this year.  The dismal state of affairs is hurting all nations who are contributing troops to the effort.  Insurgency-related violence was up by 87% in the six months prior to March and Agence France-Presse broke the news the other day that NATO forces are experiencing their deadliest month ever in June 2010.  Meanwhile, last week brought an unwanted milestone to our partners in Great Britain, with the 300th fatality from a British family to take place in Afghanistan, an event that has reignited popular opposition to the war in that country.

This war has gone on for nine years now and it's time for the President and the Congress to do more than just reaffirm their commitment to the costly prosecution of this conflict.  Contrary to the repeated themes in the 2008 political debates, this war has not stopped the proliferation of terrorists around the world, it has not stopped lunatics from trying to kill innocent people in crowded theatre districts, and it has certainly not done a thing to instill fear into the minds of terrorist recruiters in the Middle East.  They hate us more than ever, they want to kill us more than ever, and there is simply no way we can exterminate every bad guy on the planet one at a time.

But setting aside my biases, I think there are practical political reasons for a timeout and a revisiting of this "good war" right now.  As Peggy Noonan pointed out in her Wall Street Journal column yesterday, there is soon going to be no natural base support for this conflict -- the left never loved the war and are likely to grow increasingly opposed to it, the center will observe that the Afghanistan war has lasted longer than Vietnam and won't favor another bogged down conflict on the other side of the world, and the right may well begin to drop away as they tabulate the budget allocation for a war that seems to have no real "victory" to be claimed.  We've seen this movie before . . . a war with no base support is a war that can't be fought for much longer.

In the controversial Rolling Stone article that touched off last week's dramatics, the writer of the McChrystal piece (Michael Hastings) drew this conclusion after spending an extensive amount of personal time with the military team in the Middle East: "When it comes to Afghanistan, history is not on McChrystal’s side. The only foreign invader to have any success here was Genghis Khan -- and he wasn’t hampered by things like human rights, economic development and press scrutiny."

It's too bad that a courageous American who has given so much of his life to the service and defense of his country was publicly shamed and fired by his Commander in Chief last week.  But the front-page termination of Gen. McChrystal opens the door for a fresh look at the Afghanistan War.  If those of us who view it as a mistake are right, who is going to ask their neighbor to be the last soldier to die in the desert?

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