“You can’t buy an Arab, but you can rent one,” said the late Abba Eban. Gen. David Petraeus “surge” strategy in Iraq amounted to putting 100,000 Sunni fighters on the payroll of the American army. Rather than continue random acts of terror against the Shi’ite majority, Iraq’s Sunni minority accepted Petraeus’ money and stockpiled weapons for the inevitable civil war that would ensue upon America’s eventual withdrawal. It turns out that you can’t even rent an Afghan, and the “surge” strategy has failed miserably in Afghanistan.
The context for the gripes by Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staff published by Rolling Stone magazine is a losing war. The military complains that the rules of engagement imposed by the politicians to prevent civilian deaths are so strict that American soldiers are hard put to defend themselves, as George F. Will reported June 20. The trouble is that the Taliban is indistinguishable from the general population that the army wants to rent (“win their hearts and minds,” in official parlance), and will fight to the death. To reduce the Taliban will require a lengthy war of attrition with enormous collateral damage, and the United States has neither the will to sacrifice the requisite number of its own soldiers nor the willingness to accept the civilian body count needed to win.
It was a badly-designed mission to begin with; the only way to neutralize the Taliban, as Henry Kissinger has argued, would be to form a coalition of Afghanistan’s neighbors—prominently including India—to isolate and reduce the insurgency. Instead, the Obama administration mistook Petraeus’ political quick fix in Iraq for a prospective solution in Afghanistan and left the military to flounder there. In a recent essay I compared Petraeus to the Imperial field marshall of the Thirty Years War, Albrecht von Wallenstein: “Wallenstein taught armies to live off the land, and succeeded so well that nearly half the people of Central Europe starved to death during the conflict. General David Petraeus, who heads America’s Central Command (CENTCOM), taught the land to live off him.”
Not during the worst periods of the Vietnam War did serving officers heap the sort of insults on the politicians that McChrystal and his staff uttered in the presence of a Rolling Stone reporter (National Security Advisor what’s-his-name is a “clown,” the Vice President is nicknamed “Bite Me,” and so forth). The depth of the rage and frustration that this behavior evinces stems from a comprehensive foreign policy failure on an unprecedented scale.
The last straw for the military men may have been the collapse of the administration’s Palestinian policy. On March 17, Petraeus told the Senate that Israel’s failure to arrive at a peace deal with the Palestinians endangered his mission in Iraq. His subordinate General Keith Dayton had spent $100 million to train a few thousand Palestinian soldiers loyal to Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestine Authority. Petraeus’ testimony was designed to justify the diplomatic crisis that the White House provoked with Israel over apartment construction in a Jerusalem no-man’s land where no Arab ever had lived. The administration threw Israel under the bus in order to bolster the Palestine Authority, to which the Pentagon had committed substantial reputational as well as financial resources.
Then came the Gaza flotilla, launched with the personal blessing of Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan, with the intention of forcing the rest of the world to deal directly with Hamas, which Erdogan had previously invited to Ankara and embraced as an ally. The White House obliged by forcing Israel to ease the Gaza blockade—instituted by the Bush administration after Hamas staged a coup against the Palestine Authority in 2007. In a meeting with Obama June 9, Abbas reportedly begged the U.S. president not to lift the blockade, which had been designed to pressure Hamas to come to terms with the Palestine Authority. Hamas’ propaganda victory cut Abbas and the Palestine authority off at the knees.
The Pentagon career officers have played ball with two administrations. Petraeus endeared himself to the Bush administration, as well as to a credulous conservative community, by making the Iraq War look like a success. McChrystal hoped to fix Afghanistan for Obama, or at least produce an impression of a fix sufficiently credible to advance his career. As the general and his staff told Rolling Stone, however, they are working for incompetents. The subtext of their gripes is a refusal to take the blame for a feckless, contradictory, and failing policy.