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McChrystal affair points up wisdom of punishing enemy but not occupying its territory

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–The dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan is not as seismic as some are contending, but it is significant. The comparison  with Truman and MacArthur is not appropriate. MacArthur acted against presidential policy, and helped create the military and political disaster of Chinese entry into the Korean War. McChrystal and his aides only criticized the president and his political advisors. They did it publicly, with the Rolling Stone format adding to the insult. His action was dismissable, but its significance goes beyond the details of how a general must respect his political superior. It indicates more about the folly of American war policy than the personalities who were commanding the most prominent part of it.  

We cannot know all the details, at least until biographies appear some years in the future. There seems little doubt, however, that it reflects a lack of clear and agreed policy about a conflict mired in something approaching chaos. 

Reports are that June was the heaviest casualty month for NATO forces in a 9 year war, as well as marking another lengthening of what already was the longest war in US history. Newspaper readers should be well aware of the corruption at the highest levels of what stands as the Afghan government, and its dealing with the Taliban behind the back of the Americans. One media personality said that the dismissal would be costly because McChrystal had good relations with Presient Karzai. But that  may be an acceptable cost insofar as Karzai does not rule much beyond his official residence, if even that. 

Also well known is how American forces must close their eyes to the “war on drugs” while fighting what they call the “war on terror.”

President Obama has recently said that his “goal is to break Taliban, and to empower Afghanistan.” Against that is a comment from a retired general, beyond the range of a dismissal, that “There is no way to win this war. It will end with an argument rather than a victory.” 

There is nothing close to obvious wisdom about what American and NATO forces should do in Afghanistan, or its cousin wars in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and perhaps elsewhere. Nine years have seen a lot of allied casualties and enough “collateral damage” to harden the goal of dealing with the terror that the politically correct refuse to describe as Islamic.

My own perspective sees a lesson in the experience of tiny Israel that the vastly more impressive United States could adopt as a way of preserving its own power over the long term. No one should try predicting the decline of this greatest of powers the world has seen, but it would be equally naive  to assume that dominance is permanent.

The lesson Israeli leaders have learned, which has evaded American leaders is that the longer an army stays in a hostile place, the  harder it is to leave. It happened in Vietnam, and is happening in Iraq despite the fig trees planted around the continued violence. The McChrystal dismissal suggests that whatever fig trees are in store for Afghanistan will have to be of the thickest variety. Transparency is not in the cards

The corollary is that local rulers should be left to do what they want in their country, provided they do no harm to more powerful others. This modest but cogent strategy is what Israel did in Lebanon II and Gaza, and what the United States should have done in response to the 9-11 event labeled “Made in Afghanistan.” The appropriate epigram is “Hit hard and leave,” without aspiring to remake, or even to play politics in a country so far beyond the ken of outsiders. 

Sadly the lesson is too simple for a country that prides itself on highly educated military personnel, who learn social science and languages as well as tactics and strategy, plus all the civilian talent in universities and think tanks. The warnings were clear, but expertise is no guarantee of success. Competing experts typically point in different directions. Moreover, the president is Commander in Chief. One Bush with a mission to democratize Iraq or an Obama certain about increasing force in Afghanistan are enough to outweigh a great deal of talent in the military and around its flanks. 

It may be time to pray for the United States. Others will be praying in their own way for Afghanistan. Each will claim the support of the One God. It’s a scenario that Leo Tolstoi described in War and Peace, dealing with a conflict that occurred two centuries ago..

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

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