H.D.S. Greenway

Titans struggle with a doomed war strategy

By H.D.S. Greenway
Globe Columnist / July 6, 2010

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LIKE THE mythical Titans, the brothers Prometheus and Epimetheus, much was expected of Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. It was hoped they would provide coherent answers to why their country was doing so badly in its never-ending wars in Muslim lands. As Prometheus had stolen fire from the gods, had not Petraeus snatched, if not victory, at least something better than defeat from the anarchy, insurrection, and civil war that was Iraq? Hadn’t Petraeus provided the gift of light at the end of that particular tunnel?

McChrystal had the task to populate Afghanistan with surging soldiers who would, perhaps, pull off something similar in that benighted land. But, like Epimetheus, he fell short. McChrystal’s surge has not blunted the Taliban. The operation in Marja is a mess, and the battle for Kandahar has been postponed.

The brothers won fame and promotion, but the jealous gods introduced the seductive Pandora in the form of Rolling Stone — whom some might consider the goddess of journalism. McChrystal fell for her, as did Epimetheus. Petraeus, like Prometheus, would have been wiser. Rolling Stone opened the box of horrors that revealed all the rivalries, bitter differences, and insubordinations of a dysfunctional American team.

President Obama has to get a handle on the civilian side of the civilian and military effort. Special representative Richard Holbrooke, for example, needs to have his role more clearly defined to be effective. It is not possible to have the American ambassador in Kabul squabbling with the military commander and Holbrooke at swords point with ambassadors in both Kabul and Islamabad.

Except for the ever-faithful British, NATO is rapidly becoming an empty shell, with the hard-fighting Dutch and Canadians pulling out, and support for the war dying out all over Europe.

What the Americans accomplished in Afghanistan was to intervene in a civil war between the embattled North Alliance, made up of minorities, and the mostly Pashtun Taliban. We reversed that order and put the Northern Alliance in charge of the country. Now the Pashtun Taliban is pushing back and Afghan president Hamid Karzai wants to make a deal, which is deeply troubling to the Northern Alliance.

Oh yes, we disrupted Al Qaeda, but Osama bin Laden and Company simply slipped away to set up shop in Pakistan while America fights on in Afghanistan like a blind boxer flailing about in a dark room.

The initial failure of the NATO allies was to create a highly centralized state, which played to Afghanistan’s historical weaknesses instead of its strengths. It is a structure that cannot be maintained. Holbrooke knows this and has said so in public.

Then there is the grand strategy that Petraeus and McChrystal have embarked upon, a counterinsurgency strategy known as COIN. As Michael Hastings wrote in Rolling Stone: “Think Green Berets as an armed peace corps.’’ I found myself agreeing with retired General Douglas Macgregor who told Hastings: “The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to re-shape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.’’

It is the strategy that Obama has reluctantly signed on to, appearing to all the world like a preacher in a gambling den, throwing what in his heart he considers to be the devil’s dice.

Whatever happens in Afghanistan, “it’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win, or taste like a win,’’ said McChrystal’s chief of operations, General Bill Mayville.

With the American team in Afghanistan at cross purposes with its ally, Pakistan; at cross purposes with Hamid Karzai; and even at cross purposes with itself, it is time to consider something less ambitious and more sustainable than COIN, which is at best an illusion. It is a doomed strategy for no other reason than that counter insurgency can never win if the enemy enjoys a safe-haven next door, as the Soviets found in Afghanistan. That alone is enough to undo all the plans, dreams, and counter-insurgency manuals of even Titans.

So it is that the gods have punished Petraeus, too, for his new job will find him, like Prometheus, tied to a rock tortured by the pecking birds of Afghan reality. He and Obama can always hope that something will change for the better, of course. Hope was the last thing left in Pandora’s box that didn’t escape.

H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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