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The Fall of Stanley McChrystal

24 June 2010

The Fall of Stanley McChrystal

By Gwynne Dyer

General Stanley McChrystal deserved to be fired as the US commander in Afghanistan, because he and his staff were openly contemptuous of their civilian superiors. It’s a popular attitude among the dimmer sort of military officers, but for a theatre commander to tolerate and even encourage it among his own senior officers and advisers is reckless and stupid. Such a man is not fit for command.

But why was McChrystal in a state of perpetual rage against President Obama, Vice-President Biden, US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, and practically every other civilian authority he had contact with? Could it be because they don’t really believe that the United States can win a decisive military victory in Afghanistan?

Eikenberry almost certainly doesn’t. Late last year, when McChrystal was pressing for more US troops to be sent to Afghanistan, the ambassador wrote to the White House (in a cable later leaked to the New York Times) saying that “Sending additional forces will delay the day when Afghans will take over, and make it difficult, if not impossible, to bring our people home on a reasonable timetable.”

General McChrystal’s “proposed counterinsurgency strategy assumes an Afghan political leadership that is both able to take responsibility and to exert sovereignty in the furtherance of our goal,” Eikenberry wrote. “Yet (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development.”

“(Karzai) and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further,” Eikenberry continued. “They assume we covet their territory for a never-ending ‘war on terror’ and for military bases to use against surrounding powers.” So don’t send any more US troops, he concluded.

There have been no similar leaks giving us the personal views of Vice-President Biden, but he has publicly supported Obama’s target of beginning the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in July, 2011. McChrystal, like any general who believes his task is to win the war, saw that deadline as a terrible mistake.

Senator John McCain, still the senior statesman in the grown-up wing of the Republican Party, shares McChrystal’s view on this. “We can’t tell the enemy when we’re leaving,” said McCain – because if they know when we’re leaving, they’ll just wait for us to go. No doubt General David Petraeus, who has been abruptly pulled out of his (more senior) job to replace McChrystal, thinks the same.

But what if Obama, Biden and Eikenberry really think (a) that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable, and (b) that it isn’t important for the United States to win it anyway? What if they privately hope that the July, 2011 date for the start of the withdrawal will persuade the Taliban to hold back for the next year, which would make it look like the United States was winning the war.

Then the American troops could go home with the appearance of victory, leaving the Afghans to sort themselves out. No matter who is running Afghanistan two or three years later – and it wouldn’t necessarily be the Taliban – it’s highly unlikely that hordes of Afghans would “follow the Americans home” and blow them up.

Not a single terrorist attack on the United States or its forces elsewhere in the world has been planned in Afghanistan since the end of 2001. They have been planned in Pakistan, in various Arab and European countries, and in the United States itself, but not in Afghanistan. True, Afghanistan has technically been under US military occupation for all of that time, but huge parts of the country have been under Taliban control. Still no attacks.

If Obama and friends understand this, then they will have realised that the best way to end the Afghan war is simply (as they used to say about Vietnam) to “declare a victory and leave.” But they cannot say this out loud in the United States, where most of the population believes the mantra that says the “war on terror” must be won in the hills of Afghanistan.

It would take more time and political capital than Obama has to persuade the US public that this is arrant nonsense (though it is). So if he really wants to extract American troops from an unwinnable and unnecessary war, then he is condemned to do so by subterfuge. He must engineer an apparent but temporary military success in Afghanistan, do a quick hand-over to Karzai & Co., and get out while the going’s good.

This is exactly how President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger got the United States out of the unwinnable and unnecessary Vietnam war in 1973. The only alternative for the US, in Afghanistan as in Vietnam, is to stay and fight for another ten or twenty years, but that is not a realistic option.

Obama’s best hope of creating an apparent military success is to announce the withdrawal of US troops in the near future. If the Taliban understand his implicit message to them, they let him have a temporary “victory” in order to get him out.

But if that’s what Obama’s up to, then it’s understandable that General McChrystal was deeply frustrated (though that doesn’t excuse his behaviour). General Petraeus will be equally frustrated.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 13. (“Not a single…attacks”; and “This is…option”)

Obama’s Vietnam?

27 January 2009

Obama’s Vietnam?

By Gwynne Dyer

You aren’t really the US president until you’ve ordered an air-strike on somebody, so Barack Obama is certainly president now: two in his first week in office. But now that he has been blooded, can we talk a little about this expanded war he’s planning to fight in Afghanistan?

Does that sound harsh? Well, so is killing people, and all the more so because Obama must know that these remote-controlled Predator strikes usually kill not just the “bad guy”, whoever he is, but also the entire family he has taken shelter with. It also annoys Pakistan, whose territory the United States violated in order to carry out the killings.

It’s not a question of whether the intelligence on which the attacks were based was accurate (although sometimes it isn’t.) The question is: do these killings actually serve any useful purpose? And the same question applies to the entire US war in Afghanistan.

President Obama may be planning to shut Guantanamo, but the broader concept of a “war on terror” is still alive and well in Washington. Most of the people he has appointed to run his defence and foreign policies believe in it, and there is no sign that he himself questions it. Yet even fifteen years ago the notion would have been treated with contempt in every military staff college in the country.

That generation of American officers learned two things from their miserable experience in Vietnam. One was that going halfway around the world to fight a conventional military campaign against an ideology (Communism then, Islamism now) was a truly stupid idea. The other was that no matter how strenuously the other side insists that it is motivated by a world-spanning ideology, its real motives are mostly political and quite local (Vietnamese nationalism then, Iraqi and Afghan nationalism now).

Alas, that generation of officers has now retired, and the new generation of strategists, civilian as well as military, has to learn these lessons all over again. They are proving to be slow students, and if Obama follows their advice then Afghanistan may well prove to be his Vietnam.

The parallel with Vietnam is not all that far-fetched. Modest numbers of American troops have now been in Afghanistan for seven years, mostly in training roles quite similar to those of the US military “advisers” whom Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy sent to South Vietnam in 1956-63. The political job of creating a pro-Western, anti-Communist state was entrusted to America’s man in Saigon, Ngo Dinh Diem, and the South Vietnamese army had the job of fighting the Communist rebels, the Viet Cong.

Unfortunately, neither Diem nor the South Vietnamese army had much success, and by the early 1960s the Viet Cong were clearly on the road to victory. So Kennedy authorised a group of South Vietnamese generals to overthrow Diem (although he seemed shocked when they killed him). And Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy soon afterwards, authorised a rapid expansion of the American troop commitment in Vietnam, first to 200,000 by the end of 1965, ultimately to half a million by 1968. The United States took over the war. And then it lost it.

If this sounds eerily familiar, it’s because we are now at a similar juncture in America’s war in Afghanistan. Washington’s man in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai, and the Afghan army he theoretically commands have failed to quell the insurrection, and are visibly losing ground.

So the talk in Washington now is all of replacing Karzai (although it will probably be done via elections, which are easily manipulated in Afghanistan), and the American troop commitment in the country is going up to 60,000. Various American allies also have troops in Afghanistan, just as they did in Vietnam, but it is the United States that is taking over the war.

We already know how this story ends. There is not a lot in common between President John F. Kennedy and President George W. Bush, but they were both ideological crusaders who got the United States mired in foreign wars it could not win AND DID NOT NEED TO WIN. They then bequeathed those wars to presidents who had ambitious reform agendas in domestic politics and little interest or experience in foreign affairs.

That bequest destroyed Lyndon Johnson, who took the rotten advice of the military and civilian advisers he inherited from Kennedy because there wasn’t much else on offer in Washington at the time. Obama is drifting into the same dangerous waters, and the rotten advice he is getting from strategists who believe in the “war on terror” could do for him, too.

He has figured out that Iraq was a foolish and unnecessary war, but he has not yet applied the same analysis to Afghanistan. The two questions he needs to ask himself are first: did Osama bin Laden want the United States to invade Afghanistan in response to 9/11? The answer to that one

is: Yes, of course he did.

And second: of all the tens of thousands of people whom the United States has killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, would a single one have turned up in the United States to do harm if left unkilled? Answer: probably not.

OTHER people might have turned up in the US with evil intent, but not those guys.

So turning Afghanistan into a second Vietnam is probably the wrong strategy, isn’t it?


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 3 and 6. (“Does…Afghanistan”; and “Alas…Vietnam”)

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

29 June 2005

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

By Gwynne Dyer

If mere rhetoric could bridge the gulf of credibility, President
George W. Bush might have turned the tide with his nationally televised
speech on Tuesday evening. As usual, he strove to blur the distinction
between the “war on terror” (which almost all Americans still see as
necessary) and the war in Iraq (which they are finally turning against),
and promised the viewers that all would end well if they only showed
“resolve”. But the audience has heard it too many times before.

A majority of Americans now understand that the terrorist attacks
in Iraq are a result of the US invasion, not a justification for it. Many
have also see the leaked CIA report that concluded that Iraq is producing a
new breed of Arab jihadis, trained in urban warfare, who are more numerous
and deadlier than the generation that learned its trade in Afghanistan. So
they don’t believe the war in Iraq is making them safer — and they see no
light at the end of the tunnel.

Since Vice-President Dick Cheney boasted in early June that the
insurgency in Iraq was “in its last throes,” more than eighty American
solders and about 700 Iraqi civilians have been killed. On Monday the new
Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, declared that “two years will be
enough and more than enough to establish security” — but the previous
evening US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld mused aloud on US television
that the insurgency in Iraq might last for “five, six, eight, ten, twelve

Even more than casualties, the American public hates defeat, and it
can sense panic and confusion among the president’s allies and advisers.
The latest polls show a huge swing against the Iraq war in American public
opinion, with around 60 percent now opposing the war and refusing to
believe that the Bush administration has a clear plan for winning it. But
that doesn’t mean that US troops will actually be leaving Iraq any time
soon. There is still the question of saving face.

People forget that American public opinion turned against the
Vietnam war in 1968, but that the withdrawal of US combat troops was not
completed until 1973. The intervening five years (and two-thirds of all
American casualties in the war) were devoted to the search for a way to get
US troops out of Vietnam without admitting defeat. At the very least,
there had to be a “decent interval” after the US left before the victors
collected their prize.

In the end, the humiliation was far greater than if the United
States had simply walked away in 1968 — the roof of the American embassy
in Saigon in 1975 is among the best-known images of American history — and
the US army became so demoralised that it was virtually useless as a
fighting force for a decade afterwards. But we are dealing with human
psychology here, so the pattern is likely to repeat.

The current administration in Washington has identified itself with
the Iraq adventure so closely that it would have great difficulty in just
walking away — especially since Mr Bush is loyal beyond reason to the
neo-conservative ideologues whose obsessions landed him in this mess. There
will be mid-term elections to Congress in only sixteen months, but it
stretches belief that US forces could be extracted from Iraq so quickly
without having a negative effect on Republican chances in that vote.

The real deadline for a US withdrawal from Iraq is the three and a
half years that the Bush presidency has left. Keeping control of the White
House will be the most important consideration for American Republicans in
2008, so there must be some resolution of the Iraq problem by then. What
might it be?

There is the happy-ever-after ending, constantly promised by the
Bush administration and its Iraq collaborators, where all the Iraq
communities reconcile, the insurgency dies down, and a genuinely democratic
government begins to deliver security and prosperity to the exhausted
Iraqis. Such an outcome is not impossible in principle, but it is unlikely
to occur while US troops are still occupying the country and goading both
Islamists and Arab nationalists into resistance.

There is also the roof-of-the-embassy scenario, but that is equally
unlikely. The Sunni Arab insurgents in Iraq, drawn from a solid block of
20 percent of the population occupying the heart of the country, have the
power to thwart any peace settlement that excludes them. But they cannot
drive US troops out, and they cannot reestablish their political domination
over the Shia Arabs and the Kurds even if the Americans leave.

The real problem in securing a “decent interval” that would allow a
dignified American withdrawal from Iraq is that the insurgents cannot
deliver it — because they are too weak and divided. The foreigners among
them answer to no state authority, and the Iraqi majority are
overwhelmingly drawn from the Sunni Arab minority whose leadership was
decapitated by the American invasion. They are all over the map, in dozens
of little organisations, and American negotiators can’t even figure out the
key people to talk to.

So it’s going to be messy, and it’s even possible that US troops
won’t be out of Iraq three and a half years from now. In which case the
next US president will be a Democrat.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“The current…vote”;
and “There…leave”)
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.

The Coming Pandemic

1 June 2005

The Coming Pandemic

By Gwynne Dyer

The long-term solution is to invest many billions of dollars and a huge amount of political capital in persuading peasant families throughout China and South-East Asia to change the way they raise their poultry. The urgent short-term task is to develop a way of mass-producing influenza vaccine far faster than is now possible. It’s urgent because “the world is in the gravest possible danger of a global pandemic,” as Dr Shigeru Omi, Western Pacific regional director of the World Health Organisation, told an emergency conference on avian flu held in Vietnam two months ago.

The H5N1 avian flu virus first crossed into human beings in 1997, but it has clearly been mutating in recent years in ways that make it more capable of moving from birds to people. The spate of human infections in mid 2003 in China and South-East Asia was so serious that over 100 million domestic birds were killed or died in those countries before it subsided in early 2004, but there was only a few months’ respite before bird-to-human transmission began again last June.

The virus has now appeared in wild birds who can carry the virus far beyond its original reservoir in domestic chickens in southern China and South-East Asia: in late May China closed all its nature parks after 178 migratory geese were found dead from the virus in Qinghai province in the north-west. The most recent outbreak has so far killed 53 people in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia — and even more ominously, the first probable case of human-to-human transmission was recorded last September in Vietnam.

The danger of a global flu pandemic that could be as bad as or worse than the “Spanish influenza’outbreak of 1918-19 (which killed 40 to 50 million people, half of them young, healthy adults) comes from the fact that a strain of influenza virus that normally affects only birds can swap genes with a strain that is highly infectious between human beings. If people with the human type of influenza should also be infected with the avian type (through direct contact with infected poultry), the gene swap can easily occur — and direct human-to-human transmission becomes possible. At that point, given current patterns of international travel, the world might be only weeks away from a global pandemic.

We don’t know if avian flu viruses swapping genes with human types caused the lethal Spanish influenza, but that was certainly the source of the much milder “Asian flu” outbreak in 1957-58 (which killed 70,000 people in the United States alone) and the “Hong Kong flu” pandemic in 1968-69 (50,000 US deaths). Given the rate at which influenza viruses mutate, we are overdue for another pandemic — and this one could be a monster.

The H5N1 virus is resistant to most anti-viral drugs, and in the avian form it has been getting steadily stronger. Early outbreaks killed around 10 percent of poultry flocks; more recent ones have been killing up to 90 percent.

In people who have caught avian flu, the death rate has been horrendous: 50 to 75 percent of those infected. A gene-swapped version that is directly communicable between human beings might be less lethal, but it could still far exceed the 1-2 percent fatality rate of the Spanish influenza. To make matters worse, this version of avian flu has a long incubation period. Unlike the SARS virus that killed 774 people two years ago, it may be very hard to stop before it spreads into the general population.

“When people were transmitting the (SARS) virus they were already showing signs, so it could be picked up at airports with temperature (detectors),” explained World Health Organisation spokesman Peter Cordingley. “With (avian) flu you can be infectious before you show any signs.” If human-to-human infections start to spread, there could be not only huge loss of life, but global economic chaos as air travel is shut down to contain the spread, borders are closed, and essential services break down because too many of their workers are off sick or just hiding from the flu at home.

Governments are already arming themselves to deal with this pandemic — on 1 April President George W. Bush added “influenza caused by novel or reemergent influenza viruses that are causing, or have the potential to cause, a pandemic” to the list of diseases for which a quarantine can be declared — but there is no vaccine. As things stand now, none could be available for months after the pandemic begins. That is why five teams of scientists, writing in last week’s edition of the journal “Nature”, urged a permanent global task force to react quickly to outbreaks of bird flu. If it is not done, they warned, millions will die.

The first opportunity to create such a task force will be at the G-8 summit in Scotland next month, and its first priority must be to develop new and easily produced vaccines to deal with the expected outbreak. But lasting progress, as Dr Samuel Jutzi of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation said at the Vietnam meeting in March, depends on “addressing the transmission of the virus where it occurs, in poultry, specifically free-range chickens and wetland-dwelling ducks.” In other words, a couple of hundred million Asian peasants have to be persuaded to stop living in the same space as their poultry. A tall order, but a necessary one.