Porter: The real problem is a failed strategy in Afghanistan
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Hi. Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And on his way back to Washington is General Stanley McChrystal. He gave an interview in Rolling Stone magazine where he said what we’re told are some disparaging things about the Obama administration’s ability to lead the war in Afghanistan. Here’s a few of the juicy quotes. Speaking about McChrystal’s first one-on-one meeting with President Obama, one of McChrystal’s aides is quoted as saying that the General was disappointed. Quote, “It was a 10-minute photo op,” the advisor said. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about [McChrystal]. . . . Here’s the guy who’s going to run his … war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.” McChrystal termed the president’s three-month review of the US military situation in Afghanistan, before deciding to send more troops, a, quote, “painful” time. He’s quoted as saying, “I was selling an unsellable position.” McChrystal dismissed Biden’s strategy as shortsighted, adding it would lead to, quote, “Chaos-istan”. And McChrystal’s described as getting an email from Richard Holbrooke, US special representative to Afghanistan who reports directly to the president. When he sees the email on his Blackberry, apparently McChrystal doesn’t even want to open it. One of his aides says, be careful, you might get some of that on your shoe. And then the aide is quoted as saying, “The Boss says [he]” meaning the Holbrooke, “[is] like a wounded animal.” Now joining us is Gareth Porter, investigative journalism historian, who’s been writing extensively on Afghanistan and General McChrystal. Thanks for joining us, Gareth.
GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Thanks, Paul.
JAY: I don’t get what’s really going on here. Okay, so they said his aides said some bad things about Biden and McChrystal, didn’t like his first meeting with Obama. This looks like something that could have been ignored and talked way. Instead it’s becoming an enormous flap. McChrystal’s on his way back, perhaps to be fired. What do you make of all this?
PORTER: Well, of course, you’re right. This is the kind of thing that sometimes does get reported. None of the remarks were that serious. It does reflect, of course, bad judgment on General McChrystal’s part to have allowed these very informal remarks. It was not really an interview. Clearly it was just that the journalist, Michael Hastings, was allowed to hang out with McChrystal and some of his drinking buddies in situations where they felt very free to talk, without explicitly saying this is all off the record, you can’t use any of this, and Hastings went ahead and published it. But you’re right that if in fact the White House was happy with McChrystal’s performance, happy with the war, this doesn’t lead to anything serious. And what of course this reminds one of is what exactly happened to the CENTCOM commander under George W. Bush, William “Fox” Fallon. Fallon gave an interview with—or a series of interviews with Esquire magazine, which had some remarks which were mildly critical of the White House. And as a result, after it was published he basically was told that his time was over. So I think that there is a parallel here in that it appears the White House is not at all happy with General McChrystal and may be taking advantage of this to fire him and replace him with somebody who they would be happy with.
JAY: Well, is this really an indication that the whole military policy is in chaos? [inaudible] the “Chaos-istan” may be the United States presence in Afghanistan.
PORTER: I think that’s a very good name for it. “Chaos-istan” is precisely what the United States military has created in Afghanistan. I mean, it was never a successful strategy, of course, from the beginning of the war. It was all wrongheaded in every important respect. But the idea that McChrystal was coming in to set things right and would have a strategy that would somehow be more successful, somewhat on the same lines as General Petraeus in Iraq, turns out to be, of course, a complete illusion. Unfortunately, it was an illusion that the White House appears to have bought into, or at least sufficiently so that they were willing to go along with it. But one has to wonder also to what extent the willingness to embrace the McChrystal strategy in Afghanistan is ultimately a product primarily, or almost exclusively, of domestic politics, the idea that the president really believed that he had no choice because of pressure from the pro-war sentiment in this country, the right wing of the Republican Party, which is completely in control, and the right-wing news media, which dominate, it appears, to a significant degree, the shaping of public opinion on whatever war the United States happens to be in.
JAY: Right, because when you actually look at the comments quoted in Rolling Stone, there’s actually no direct attack by McChrystal on Obama. In fact, back when the debate over the troop levels were going on a few months ago, McChrystal was actually—if you want to talk about insubordination, was far worse. He was really arguing in public with the president about how many soldiers he was going to get. This is very minor stuff compared to that. But one of the things I thought was interesting came out in the Rolling Stone article was how closely linked McChrystal is to Hillary Clinton, and that there seems to be a kind of—two parallel policies going on here. You have Obama appoints his representative, [Richard] Holbrooke, that reports directly to the president, not Hillary Clinton, and you’ve got this alliance between McChrystal and Clinton and Obama’s guys, Holbrooke and the ambassador, although you’d think the ambassador would be reporting to Hillary, but she’s already backstabbed her own ambassador because she’s supporting McChrystal—a very convoluted fighting inside the White House, inside the whole leadership of the Afghan policy.
PORTER: Well, Paul, this is of course really a repeat of a familiar pattern that we’ve seen in virtually every administration during the Cold War and since, where you have factions sharply divided over the key foreign-policy, national-security issues of that administration. And whenever there’s a war going on, that can be expected to develop. But in this case, we know from various indicators that from the beginning of the policy discussion over the war in Afghanistan, Hillary Clinton was aligned with the hard-liners in the administration and in the military. Bob Gates was also very supportive of escalation in Afghanistan. On the other hand, we have reason to believe that there were dissenters, with Joe Biden being the primary one in the administration really being against a counterinsurgency strategy that called for a large troop increase. And perhaps Jim Jones somewhere in the middle, but certainly willing to support an alternative strategy that would not require a large troop increase, if any at all. So I think that the idea that there are deep divisions in this administration really has been very clear going all the way back to the early months of the Obama administration.
PORTER: And the two critical issues in terms of McChrystal’s counterinsurgency plan—called COIN, apparently—is, number one, that—well, first and foremost, that it depends that the population are going to support you in this. And there’s two critical factors there, which seems to eliminate any possibility of success in that. First and foremost is an alliance with the warlords. And there’s stories today again that there’s billions of dollars of US military money being funneled to the warlords, who are every bit as much hated by the Afghan population is the Taliban are. So number one, you can’t ally with people, the criminals who really are literally war criminals. Many of the people the US supports and works with would have had UN war crimes charges on them if the Americans hadn’t stopped it from happening. And number two—and this is where I think—I wonder what you think of this. I think McChrystal actually has a point on this, is you can’t tell people you’re leaving if you think you’re going to get them support, because I keep hearing that people on the ground in Kandahar and in that area are saying, you know, even if we wanted to fight against the Taliban, you guys are getting out of here sooner than later, and we’re going to be left with this mess, so you might as well get out now unless you’re going to stay.
PORTER: You know, these are two very fundamental structural reasons why this war should not have been continued under the Obama administration, why it was so clear from the very beginning that this could not succeed, that there was no way to handle the situation except to accept the inevitability that the United States had to get out and to begin to make arrangements to do that, rather than to try to deceive the American public—and, in fact, to deceive themselves—that it was possible to have any success in pushing back the Taliban insurgency. You know, first of all, the warlords, you know, are deeply embedded in the social and political structure of Afghanistan, going all the way back to the overthrow of the Taliban regime. The United States, of course, was the primary empowerer of the warlords, and that has gone on without any stop ever since the end of 2001. That’s basically an irreversible reality of the political and social landscape. And then, when you try to talk about convincing the people of, you know, Helmand province or Kandahar province that the United States is going to stay eternally in their province, longer than the Taliban are going to be there, it’s simply not a case that you’re going to make credible, and it never was credible. And, you know, one of the reasons that I think basically General McChrystal was in over his head in Afghanistan is that he was incapable of grasping that reality. He insisted on sort of believing that it was possible to sell that unsellable argument. And, by the way, I think that the real problem of General McChrystal as commander and the way he has organized his command in Afghanistan is that he’s surrounded himself with his old drinking buddies from the special operations forces, who join him in being basically anti-intellectual and not being interested in people who are really capable of having a deeper understanding of the situation in Afghanistan.
JAY: And for people that don’t know, McChrystal, for I think it’s four or five years prior to this post, was head of the black ops operations—essentially assassination squads. That was his background for [inaudible]
PORTER: Well, that’s exactly right. And to think that somebody like that is capable of grasping the realities of Afghanistan and really being able to recognize the truth from the convenient fictions, I think, was a very serious, unforgivable error on the part of the national security team of the Obama administration and White House [itself].
JAY: Now, the other thing is the big other piece of this plan was supposed to be a civilian surge, reconstruction, and so on, and apparently very little of that has really happened. And then if you listen to Karzai and his people, they’re saying that almost no money is really going into training the Afghan Army. You know, it really looks like the plan of the Pentagon was essentially, one way or the other, to find a way to stay in Afghanistan a long time.
PORTER: Well, that is always the plan of the Pentagon. Once they’re in a war, it is absolutely required, for the interests of the military services and the civilian bureaucracy that is allied with it at the Pentagon, to not only continue the war but to be able to make the case that they have been successful. I mean, why? Because that is the way they sell their budget for the next year and the year after that and the year after that. It’s that, you know, we have a service here that we’re providing that is necessary and that works [inaudible]
JAY: Which is why we get this timing of the so-called announcement of all the minerals found in Afghanistan. Whenever—as we pointed out in an earlier piece of ours, everybody that wanted to know–knew about the minerals in 2007, but all of a sudden it becomes a news story that they’ve got, you know, trillions of dollars of minerals underground, which provides another excuse or reason for the military to stay in Afghanistan for an endless amount of time.
PORTER: That’s right. But as I think we may have touched on previously, they still have a very serious problem here, which is that they don’t have a war that can be presented credibly as having any chance of success. That’s why I think we do have a very serious political crisis that the White House probably at this point understands at some level, and I think that that may well be entering into the White House decision to come back to the beginning of this discussion, the White House apparent decision to bring McChrystal back and to say this is not going to go down, you’re really fired.
JAY: Well, one of the proposals that was made earlier on is to have some kind of regional conference to de-Americanize this and bring in regional countries, all who have interests, and try to come to some peaceful resolution of all of this. That’s certainly what we hear the people on the ground want. But not a word about that out of the White House so far. But perhaps the firing, if it takes place and McChrystal gives Obama a chance for a real change in direction—.
PORTER: I think it does. And, you know, this actually sort of reminds me that last March, mid-March, there was a report in The New York Times that President Obama was telling his national security team this may be a good time to start talking to the Taliban, indicating that he was getting restless with the military and, of course, Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates’ argument that we have to hang in there for another year, year and a half, in order to punish the Taliban and to be able to establish a position of strength from which to negotiate. Now we understand that exactly the opposite has been happening. And I suspect that Obama has been reinforced in his view that we’re going to have to negotiate sooner rather than later.
JAY: Yeah, although I have to say, if you talk to a lot of Afghans, they say what you do want to do is negotiate with fascists. They would like the—I mean, if you talk to—a lot of Afghans are taking the position now, from Malalai Joya to others, even the other candidate for the presidency—
PORTER: Abdullah Abdullah, yes.
JAY: —even Abdullah Abdullah is saying, and others, just you can’t negotiate with the Taliban. So a lot of Afghans are just saying, US, get the hell out; we’ll deal with the Taliban; don’t negotiate another layer of rotten regime for us; just get out of our affairs.
PORTER: Well, I mean, you know, there is a possibility of simply having a US-Taliban agreement that would cover the military situation, the United States saying that we would get out on a timetable, an accelerated timetable, the Taliban saying that we will not fight US troops while they’re getting out, and call a cease-fire. I mean, that would be in the interests of both sides. It would not prejudice the future politically of Afghanistan. It would still leave the whole question of how the conflict about the future political system is to be settled. That certainly is one possibility. But I’m not sure that the Karzai administration would prefer that. I think it would prefer to have negotiations while the Americans are still there, to maximize the leverage that could be had, as limited as it might be, on the Taliban to get the best possible settlement.
JAY: Right. Well, all I know is, having been there before, and following this story, the world owes the Afghan people more than this horrible mess that US policy has left them. What exactly the solution is I don’t know, but whether it’s through the UN or some kind of regional conference, to leave ordinary Afghans in the midst of a horrible civil war between warlords, Taliban, and who knows what is certainly not what the Afghan people deserve out of this situation. Anyway, thanks very much for joining us, Gareth.
PORTER: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
End of Transcript
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.