Raging, or just constipated: McChrystal
This week Obama sacked his top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. What the affair proves is that, for US commanders, it doesn’t matter how many innocent civilians you kill, or deaths you cover up; what really matters is slagging off colleagues.
McChrystal had given exclusive access to a reporter from Rolling Stone, who went on to report some of the stuff he said about other top US officials in Afghanistan. Basically, he and his team don’t think very highly of them.
McChrystal and his aides said of Obama that he was “unprepared” and “intimidated”, and of US Vice-President Joe Biden, “Who’s that? Joe Bite Me?” They called a meeting with a French minister about war policy “fucking gay.” They say the President’s national security adviser is “a joke”. They call the President’s special adviser to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, “a wounded animal”, and react to him contacting them with “Not another fucking email from Holbrooke!”
The comments are so extraordinary they have made some people ask if McChrystal was actually trying to get fired to avoid taking the blame for failure in Afghanistan. Obama has made a promise to start pulling out troops next July, but this is of course dependent on the situation being stabilised to the US’ liking, something which looks just as unlikely as it has done for the last few years. Certainly there seems to be a recognition by pretty much everyone interviewed in the article that the US is not going to succeed in getting what it wants from Afghanistan. In a long piece, the words “win” or “victory” are not uttered by the general or his team. One commander who does say win says:
“It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win. This is going to end in an argument.”
But a perhaps more convincing explanation is that McChrystal is a product of a society that now accepts permanent war as a part of reality, and glorifies the soldier above the political “wimps” and “pen pushers” back home. The US is an incredibly militarised society, a process which has accelerated dramatically over the past decade. The idea of unending war for global dominance has become acceptable in a way that it wouldn’t have been not that long ago. McChrystal spoke out as part of a culture that loves “mavericks” who ignore what those above them think, causing maximum destruction in the process.
Movies and popular culture help create the context in which McChrystal felt he could publicly speak his mind so dramatically. His backstory reads a perfect action movie character. As a student he defied authorities and was a hard drinker, before going into the special forces to command black ops on behalf of the US government. This is the kind of character who is constantly glorified to the American public. His team of special advisers, who surely must share some of the blame for his gaffes, was composed of special forces veterans, and called themselves ‘Team America.’
The reporter for Rolling Stone himself was suckered into this atmosphere, gleefully describing how, after the “fucking gay” dinner, Team America found the “least Gucci” (unfancy) Paris bar to get “shit faced”, dance, sing incoherent songs about Afghanistan and declare how they would die for each other.
America's top people in Afghanistan
What the tales of macho heroism ignore however is the truth of what a special forces based, counter insurgency strategy actually means. Sacking McChrystal, Obama declared he was making “a change of personnel not of policy.” That is, the plan that McChrystal fought for in Afghanistan remains in place.
The plan is basically to flood Afghanistan with US troops, who will carry out special forces missions to assassinate the networks of opposition, gaining intelligence on how people organise against the US presence and eliminating them. In Iraq, McChrystal headed death squads that systematically hunted US opponents. The article refers to this operation as a “killing machine”, and McChrystal as “a terrorist hunter.”
The only problem with this plan is that it’s been shown again and again not to work. Leave aside all your preconceptions of Jack Bauer lone warrior types from movies, and examine the places were these kinds of tactics have been used before. Algeria, where the French were defeated by the national resistance and independence achieved in 1962. Or Vietnam, where year upon year of American actions failed to remove the political support for the National Liberation Front among the people.
The new US commander, veteran of death squads in Iraq General David Petraeus, wrote a manual on counter insurgency that praises Operation Phoenix in Vietnam. This programme used capture, torture, assassinations, terrorism and infiltration to disrupt the civilian population of Vietnam who supported the Communist resistance to the US. It targeted civilian members of the Communist Party, and led to untold deaths and misery. At least 26,000 people were killed. One former US serviceman called it “a sterile depersonalised murder programme.”
Insurgencies, or guerilla wars, fundamentally depend on the support of the people. Mao famously once wrote that “the guerilla must swim in the people as the fish swim in the sea.” Therefore, counter insurgency programmes inevitably end up killing a lot of civilians.
A good example of what the policy means for people in Afghanistan is a night time raid in Khataba earlier this year. US special forces attacked a home, killing a teenage girl, two pregnant women, alongside an Afghan police officer and government prosecutor who were on their fucking side.
On discovering they had made a mistake, the soldiers then carved their bullets out of the bodies with knives, and carved more out of the walls of their home. They washed blood from the scene with alcohol, and went on to tie up the corpses, claiming that was how they had found the scene. McChrystal, as overall commander, supported this cover up. It was only exposed because of journalists who were willing to dig a little deeper. However, McChrystal has suffered no reprimand as a result. If it had turned out that the men in the house had been “enemy combatants,” you can bet they wouldn’t even have bothered with the cover up.
Death covered up: Pat Tillman
McChrystal’s only other major previous brush with trouble was the affair of Pat Tillman. Tillman was a celebrity recruit for the military, a former NFL American Football player, who very publicly joined the special forces after 9/11, in what was a propaganda coup for the military and government. He was later accidentally killed by his own troops in Afghanistan, something which McChrystal helped cover up by signing off on a falsified report aiming to make it look like he had been killed by hostile fire. But even when this was exposed he got away with it, even though this time it was an American celebrity dead rather than a (to the US public) anonymous Afghan girl.
So the conclusion to take away from all this is clear: the US government doesn’t care about civilian deaths, or even that much about the deaths of their own grunts. Deaths are what they send commanders abroad to cause. But when you start fucking with your fellow officials and commanders, well then your job really is on the line.