With the Afghanistan War now surpassing -- at least by some reckonings -- the Vietnam War as the nation's longest running, it should be abundantly clear that there is no Vietnam-style mass antiwar movement in the offing to bring this one to a halt. Stanley McChrystal, then, may have performed the most valuable service of his military career in directing the country's attention toward this war, for however brief a time it may be (although I wouldn't necessarily be the one to want to tell him that.) The General, after all, was not shown the door because he was responsible for some special military outrage or anything like that -- actually he had been criticized for restrictions designed to reduce civilian casualties. His transgression, really, was revealing too much of the weaknesses of the thinking behind a war that we might call foolish -- if it weren't tragic.
Of course, nearly nine years and counting is not necessarily such a long time in everyone's eyes: a Council on Foreign Relations opinion piece in the New York Times was already pleading that "his plan can work. We just need to give it a little time" even before McChrystal had been fired. The rest of us, though, might take the opportunity to focus on something a little deeper than the "Al Qaeda=Taliban=bad, therefore, war against them=good" logic that has consumed strategists on Capitol Hill and the Pentagon for the past decade.
For instance, while a torrent of polling data will undoubtedly analyze public perception of the McChrystal firing and its impact on the Obama presidency and the course of his war, it seems high time to revisit a far more important survey conducted this past April -- the poll the U.S. Army itself commissioned to learn the opinion of residents of Afghanistan's Kandahar province before launching a long delayed offensive widely considered central to our "new" war policy. If you were looking in the right direction during the nanosecond of national attention given to this poll, you will recall that an astounding 94 percent of those asked thought "negotiation with the Taliban is preferable to continued fighting" and 85 percent considered them "our Afghan brothers." 53 percent, in fact, thought they were "incorruptible."
On some level we here can never expect to understand how a group with outlook and policies we find so appalling could garner polling numbers that American political parties would die for. Yet in another sense it's quite simple. A relatively recent book on McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, reports that Bundy's notes from the early years of the Vietnam War demonstrate Kennedy's growing understanding that a guerilla war cannot be won by foreign troops for the simple reason that the foreign troops will eventually leave while the guerrillas stay. And even Predator missiles do not change that basic fact.
If we were to seek the one fundamental flaw in the current American military equation, it would probably be the Al Qaeda=Taliban part, without which the war makes absolutely no sense. After all, there are currently thought to be no more than about a hundred Al Qaeda in all of Afghanistan. The reality of the situation was probably best captured by Jeffrey Addicott, a former legal adviser to U.S. Special Forces. In explaining why some CIA operatives oppose the increased use of drone strikes, Addicott explained to reporter Gareth Porter that in most parts of the Muslim and Arab world, Al Qaeda was not so much an organization as "a mentality," a mentality reinforced by the continual U.S. wars against Muslim nations and the civilian casualties they inevitably bring.
This month's Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project report seemingly confirmed that fear when it reported that while Obama currently retains greater popularity in much of the rest of the world than he does at home, the great exception is the Muslim world. The report found the number of Muslims approving of Obama in Pakistan -- the other country Washington claims to be saving from Al Qaeda and the Taliban -- had fallen to 8%.
Osama bin-Laden's got to be pretty pleased with those numbers, along with one other set -- the ones tallying the costs of our wars. Whether you think they cost "only" a trillion dollars or the full three trillion that economist Joseph Stiglitz says will be the long run cost, it's a lot of money in a world facing economic difficulties in almost all quarters. Remember that Reagan era plan to drive the Soviet Union into bankruptcy by forcing it into unsustainable military spending?
So General McChrystal, if your passing from the national scene is a cause for reconsideration of any of these aspects of our current Afghanistan War policy, I say we owe you.