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Lawrence Wilkerson: Overall objectives and basic strategy in Afghanistan are wrong – it’s time to leave

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And in Washington on Wednesday, President Obama removed Gen. Stanley McChrystal as America’s top commander of Afghanistan, and in his place appointed Gen. David Petraeus.


BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: Today I accepted Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s resignation as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. I did so with considerable regret, but also with certainty that it is the right thing for our mission in Afghanistan, for our military, and for our country.


JAY: All this in the wake of an article in Rolling Stone magazine where McChrystal and his aides were quoted as saying things that some people consider disrespectful, and even disdainful, of the civilian leadership. But perhaps more importantly, President Obama reasserted his determination to follow the counterterrorism strategy worked out with McChrystal.


OBAMA: So make no mistake, we have a clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum. We are going to build Afghan capacity. We are going to relentlessly apply pressure on al-Qaeda and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same. That’s a strategy that we agreed to last fall; that is the policy that we are carrying out in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Let me say to the American people, this is a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy.


JAY: Joining us now to discuss the McChrystal Affair, I guess we could call it, is Col. Lawrence Wilkerson. He was Colin Powell’s former chief of staff under the Bush administration. He now teaches national security policy in Washington. Thanks for joining us, Larry.


JAY: So I read this article, and I do not find a direct quote from McChrystal that deserves such a furor. He says, you know, I—he’s quoted by an aide saying he didn’t like his first meeting with Obama, he was disappointed. This is not a grave thing to say. I think the only direct quote from him that’s actually at all really critical is that he was selling an unsellable position when he was trying to come and get more troops out of Obama. Everything else comes from an unattributed aide. I don’t understand why this couldn’t have been managed completely differently. Obama could have laughed it off, you know, saying, oh, people say things when they’re drunk, and an aide could have fallen on his sword and said, you know, I never should have talked that way with the journalists there, and they get rid of the aide, and life could have gone on. But Obama decided to make this an affair, a question of judgment. So my question to you is, I mean, do you agree that they could have managed this differently if they wanted to? And if you do agree, why did they decide to go after McChrystal now?

WILKERSON: I’d give you two answers to that, one with a lesser dimension than the other, if you will, and I think you’ll be able to easily distinguish. First, military protocol. It bespeaks, the whole article bespeaks a command environment, a leadership environment that is inimical to the prosecution of the president’s policy and avowed strategy in Afghanistan, which—I don’t care what anyone says about public utterances—is really to get out, and do the best we can in the process of getting out—not to put too fine a point on it. So it bespeaks a bad leadership environment. Imagine, if you will, how the troops are going to feel in Afghanistan after they read this article and they understand that they’re there—and I’m not talking about the colonels and lieutenant colonels and so forth, the majors; I’m talking about the grunts, the Marines and the soldiers who are actually prosecuting this war—when they understand that their commander in Kabul, their ultimate commander, feels that the leadership above him is incompetent—Jones, Biden, and the president himself. The bigger dimension to it, though, is the one you suggest, I think. And this is a surmise on my part, but I think the administration is taking—or certain people in the administration, and perhaps some out, are taking the opportunity of this brouhaha, this article, to reopen the debate about the strategic approach to Afghanistan. On the extreme side, there are people who believe, as I do now, that we should be out, no more blood and treasure should be expended on Afghanistan, that it’s just like Vietnam. The world will not collapse when the United States leaves Afghanistan, and they will get along just fine on their own. That’s the extreme position. The other extreme position most vouchsafed by McChrystal and certain people in the Army is COIN strategy, counterinsurgency strategy: it will work, we’ve got a leader who knows how to make it work; the first five or six or seven years of the war were neglected by the Bush administration, now everyone’s in place to make everything work well; the United States does COIN strategy well if it’s really resourced and peopled and so forth. I think that’s all bullshit. But nonetheless, that is another part of the argument. And these two things are clashing right now, and this article gave an opportunity to reopen that clash in the public venue and to bring the principal advocate for the one side, Gen. McChrystal, into the debate and perhaps get rid of him.

JAY: Yeah, I mean, that’s my point. You can always manage a situation if you want to manage the situation. I mean, I can just imagine something similar having happened in Iraq. I wonder if there’s ever been a war where generals don’t gripe about the civilian leadership. And certainly the horrible leadership culture you describe there, it’s not like the Obama administration found out about that by reading Rolling Stone—they knew that the day before the article came out. So this is all an opportunity to create a crisis for something. But there’s two levels of the real, I think, question, strategically. Let me go with the lower level first. You can’t have, quote-unquote, “COIN” counterinsurgency policy if you believe the policy that’s supposed to be based on getting some level of civilian support. And in Afghanistan you can’t do that in alliance with warlords. The people hate the warlords as much they hate the Taliban. When I was there in the spring of 2002, the venom that people had was for the US having brought all these war criminals back to power, who’s more or less represented by Karzai.

WILKERSON: And paying them major sums of money, in the hundreds of millions of dollars, in order to keep them off their backs, logistically and otherwise.

JAY: So a new strategy has got to be a fundamental new strategy, which means you can’t ally with warlords, which is the pillar of US policy right back to just after 9/11, when the Bush administration was handing out suitcases of cash to these guys to go try to get them to fight the Taliban. So the whole policy seems to be in utter chaos. What’s their choices, other than—I mean, you say get out, but Obama, he’s campaigned to be the president that’s going to win the war in Afghanistan. How does he walk away from that billing?

WILKERSON: “A win” is a really bad term to use in this case, I think. I think you have to diminish your expectations, you have to lower them considerably. And he did that to a certain extent when he focused on al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is in remnant elements now. I’m told by people whose views are respected that there are probably fewer than 200, and they’re in Pakistan, they’re not in Afghanistan. So if that’s the objective, I think we’ve pretty much accomplished that objective.

JAY: Well, that objective was accomplished before he even sent any more troops. Everybody was saying back then there’s not much of an al-Qaeda left; they’re really fighting Afghan Taliban.

WILKERSON: Well, I think you’re right, but he had to establish national security bona fides, if you will, by using Predator and Reaper and other drone strikes to kill a few more. Now we’ve done that. And I think that now our presence in Afghanistan is actually destabilizing Pakistan. So I really think we need to get out. You don’t just precipitously get out tomorrow morning; you’ve got to follow some timetable, and I think he’s got a pretty good one expressed. But now we’re going to have this argument again, probably writ large across the political landscape here in Washington, of whether we should stay and execute COIN and see if we can’t succeed in the face of odds that history says you can’t succeed (and some of the things you pointed out are part of that “can’t succeed”), or whether we do follow the timetable and get out and leave a reasonably stable country that can get along on its own.

JAY: Now, getting out implies, at least to a lot of people, a fundamental change in the approach to the region. Like, when President Obama was running for president, people would ask him, how do you root your foreign policy? And he would say quite honestly, I’m in the tradition of American pragmatism going back to Truman, and he would go up through the presidents, including Bush I. But that all implies an outlook—if you go back to [Zbigniew] Brzezinski, who at least used to be one of his advisors (I’m not sure he still is)—but the idea that the United States, if it’s going to maintain its position numero uno in the world, has to be dominant in Eurasia, and you can’t walk from Afghanistan and allow that to be the sort of beginning of a walk away and a handing over—and I’m talking in these people’s minds, not mine—Afghanistan in the region to China and Russia. So you’ve got to make a stand in Afghanistan. That’s the argument. And doesn’t Obama have to give up on that fundamental outlook if he’s going to get out?

WILKERSON: I think that fundamental outlook is flawed. China and India and other countries with an interest in Afghanistan are going to have that interest whether we’re there or not. And if we can manage whatever might be inimical to our own interests vis-à-vis them from afar—over the horizon, we like to say in the military. If we don’t get our economic house in order, if we don’t get our physical condition in order over the next decade or so, we can forget being el numero uno. We’re not even going to be el numero third, fourth, or fifth. So it’s far more important to stanch this flow of treasure and blood, get home, get ourselves into some kind of economic shape again, and maintain the military force on the seas and in the airs and on land if necessary, that it’s necessary to manage what is becoming a very different empire from the Cold War years. And you don’t do that being mired in two theaters of war, going after some terrorists who present no existential threat to your nation.

JAY: What do you make of the proposal some people have made that this really, this idea that the United States has to be the dominant power in Eurasia versus a regional solution to the problem of Afghanistan—. Most of these countries, if not all, maybe even Pakistan, which is, I think, split on the question, but certainly Russia, China, India, and much of Pakistan does not want to see extremists come to power in Afghanistan again. All the countries have somewhat—of course there’s differences and rivalry, but why not some kind of regional solution, instead of the United States as the arbiter of all this? And I’m using Brzezinskian term the “arbiter” of things in Eurasia.

WILKERSON: I’m of a similar mind with your own. I’m really worried that we have the diplomatic talent left to do this sort of thing, because we seem to have sort of lost it. But it would require some exquisite diplomacy on our part, and on the part of our NATO allies and others, too. But a regional solution to the problem which would bring in Iran—oh my God, the bête noire of the United States right now—which would bring in Turkey; would bring in Israel, even; would bring in the whole Middle East situation, as it were; that kind of solution is the only way you get a long-term livable-with, manageable situation in that region of the world. We’ve got Kyrgyzstan in turmoil now. We’ve got China mucking in everything throughout the ‘Stans. We’ve got China looming as a power in the future we may have to confront conventionally. This is all a dynamic that we’re not dealing with very well right now, and one of the reasons is our myopia caused by our fixation on two small areas, Iran and Afghanistan, who happen to be, of course, part of that region.

JAY: So, Larry, how do you think the media is doing covering this story? It seems to me they’re just all buying into a somewhat orchestrated soap opera.

WILKERSON: As badly as the media seems to do on issues like this every day in this country these days. I saw one really balanced piece in the some 90 to 100, I guess, that I’ve looked at or read thoroughly over the last 48 hours, by McClatchy, and it simply laid out all the points. Others, from foreign policy on, seem to be trying to exploit the very divide that you and I talked about at the beginning of this interview, that is to say, those that want us out and those who want us to stay and prove that the United States can do counterinsurgency strategy. So they’re exploiting, however they come down on that argument, this brouhaha to that effect.

JAY: I almost feel like I want to defend McChrystal, which is—anyone that knows me will find that a strange thing to do. I just think, if they wanted to go after McChrystal, go after McChrystal, go after the policy. This article, on the face of it itself, doesn’t deserve this kind of attention.

WILKERSON: I agree. I remember what Secretary of Defense George Marshall said right after Truman had fired MacArthur in Korea, and they were poignant words, especially if you understand Marshall’s character. Marshall had immense respect for MacArthur, he had almost fealty for MacArthur and for any general who was serving in circumstances like MacArthur had and was at the time, and he said it is very easy to make a soldier feel sorry for himself, particularly if he’s serving in an unattractive, disagreeable, dangerous locality, and particularly if in that locality he’s been asked for a tremendous effort over a period of time. There’s some resonance in those remarks to Gen. McChrystal’s position, too, and I, like you, find myself defending him at times.

JAY: I mean, if what’s in that article is all McChrystal said over almost two months where he was supposedly speaking pretty freely, boy, he didn’t say that much.

WILKERSON: No, he didn’t. But we also have to remember that there’s somewhat of a track record there—his speech at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London; his, I think, mishandling of the Pat Tillman issue. There’s a track record there that this article clearly consulted before it was written.

JAY: Yeah. That’s actually part of the point. I mean, if you’re going to take the guy on, he could’ve been taken on when he made really public important refutations of policy. Thanks very much for joining us, Larry. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.