Stanley I. Kutler: Obama’s Afghanistan Dilemma

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Stanley Kutler is the author of “The Wars of Watergate” and other writings.]

During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly called for expanding the war in Afghanistan. Be careful what you wish for.

The bells of Afghanistan echo the Vietnam War. Like then, we have a powerful military establishment linked to civilian foreign and defense intellectuals clamoring for an expansive military adventure to protect us from an onrushing enemy. The pressure on President Barack Obama to substantially increase troop levels in Afghanistan is enhanced by a high-powered, hardly subtle campaign.

Vietnam cost more than 50,000 Americans killed in action, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese dead or missing, untold numbers of maimed and wounded on both sides, and incalculable American treasure. Afghanistan promises to be as long and as expensive.

Tension and conflict between the military high command and the Obama administration over Afghanistan are obvious. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in August described the Afghanistan security situation as “serious” and “deteriorating.” Less than a month later, he told a Senate panel that “probably” more troops were needed. Mullen’s remarks prefaced the report of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the field commander in Afghanistan.

Predictably, McChrystal has called for 45,000 more troops. And equally predictable, his “confidential” report to his commander in chief was leaked to The Washington Post, using none other than Bob Woodward, the serial conduit for power holders (or grabbers?). Who leaked and why is a mindless Beltway parlor game; the simple answer will do: The leak clearly is designed to pressure President Obama.

McChrystal paints an impressive analysis of the war in Afghanistan and the shortcomings of our counterinsurgency responses. He suggests that failure is certain if he is denied additional troops. His report has been in circulation for nearly a month, yet the president has maintained that he will withhold a decision until he has charted a clear course. The White House take is that the United States must define its strategy before making any further commitment.

McChrystal and other military leaders, however, will apparently have none of that. The report’s conclusions are stated in urgent terms, citing the imminent danger of a Taliban triumph. Indeed, reports of the Taliban’s increasing successes mount, but that only draws into question whether an expanded military effort can do much to stem the tide against a Kabul government that is inept, corrupt and lacking of popular support. Meanwhile, the Taliban freely uses the soil of our ally Pakistan as a sanctuary and launching pad. Some ally.

Gen. David Petraeus, head of Central Command, weighed in with support for McChrystal’s recommendations. The generals are post-Vietnam, anxious to prove they are more adept in counterinsurgency. They have also learned to operate more effectively in the domestic political arena. They are not Gen. William Westmoreland.

Important civilian voices have lent their support, apparently well informed of the military’s thinking. Condoleezza Rice again has warned that if we abandon Afghanistan, we invite further terrorist attacks, reminding one of the dire “mushroom cloud” warnings she made before the Iraq debacle.

More ominously, Sen. John McCain soldiers on. Following the leak of McChrystal’s report, he attacked a “disconnect” between the military and the White House, as if the president is constitutionally, perhaps divinely, mandated to follow wherever the military leads. Since McCain campaigned for the presidency in 2008 as being best qualified to serve as commander in chief, he should know that the constitutional phrase asserts civilian supremacy. When Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon confronted unsound or incorrect military advice, McCain was a POW in Vietnam, unmindful of civilian-military clashes over Vietnam. Today, with the hindsight of history, we can look back over those conflicts and see that the wiser course was all too apparent. Clearly McCain in his certitude does not.

We will not hear much dissent among the political elite from McChrystal’s recommendations, aside from the usual array of war critics. But what is at work here is that vague, almost incalculable force: public opinion. Polls now reflect diminishing public support for our involvement and a corresponding increase in opposition.

The Afghanistan war has been difficult and long. McChrystal knows it will be even longer and more difficult—but he promises light at the end of the tunnel. Old idea, new garb.

The president is in a bind of his own making. How ironic. His campaign attempts to show his toughness have come back to bite him. Where were progressive voices then? In their zeal to pile on George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, they offered few criticisms of their own candidate, who eagerly promised to pursue a similar policy, only better. The futility of that approach should have been evident, but candidate Obama got a free ride.

Obama inherited an imperial America; he also inherited the need to maintain it with military force. In the meantime, whatever the wisdom or viability of McChrystal’s military solution, his mission seems predicated on maintaining a corrupt, ineffective regime in Kabul. Or is it? McChrystal has not said anything on the subject, but does he have contingency plans for supporting a coup in Afghanistan? We should remember the futility of coups we sponsored in South Vietnam that resulted only in still another incompetent general.

If Obama rejects McChrystal’s call for more troops, and carries on an inconclusive war interminably, he will have to shoulder the blame and carry the burden of “we told you so” barbs. The right, determined for the president’s policy initiatives to fail, enthusiastically urges a more expansive war. But that is not to suggest a moratorium on its criticism.

Obama has little wiggle room; he cannot continue the war he already has expanded without imperiling his presidency. Time is not his ally.

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james joseph butler - 10/9/2009

Enough already with Stanley. This is about another stupid American war which, it's now Friday, is being led by a Nobel Peace Prize winner, wow. I'm sure it's bottle rocket time in Kandahar.

Mr.Wohlberg has the same understanding of war I had at age 11, if the other guy wins I'm a sissy. Grow up or at least read a little more. Afghanistan, as Osama bin Laden has pointedly stated over and over, had nothing to do with 9/11. Yes they trained there and were coordinated from there but box cutters and suicidal political orthodoxies are widely available.

The US is in Afghanistan to save face. There is no rational reason for us to stay there. The Taliban said go away and we will not follow just last weekend. If Afghanistan and Pakistan had Eagle Scouts standing shoulder to shoulder with Army Rangers from Herat to Lahore we would still be a target. As long as we continue killing innocent Muslims and remain blind to the sins of the Israeli apartheid state we will pay a price.

Maarja Krusten - 10/9/2009

I take no position on what the U.S. should do in Afghanistan. I would like to comment on another aspect of this essay.

I know personally and respect Dr. Kutler as an historian. We agree on some historical interpretations and disagree on others. It happens among historians. I suspect Dr. Kutler and I have not always voted the same way. Although now an Independent, I considered myself a Republican from 1968 to 1989. That doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the courage Dr. Kutler once showed by taking high risk actions that benefited the federal agency at which I once worked. Would any HNN reader have shown as much courage as Dr. Kutler did in that particular situation? Perhaps yes, perhaps no -- there may be no one here who would have been up for that. I have no idea – but then again, I don’t look at things through such a framework. I simply recognize the value of what he once did for my agency – just as I recognize what others have done in other fields, including serving in the armed forces. Accomplishments need not be looked at as a zero sum game.

As it happens, I don’t see any point in arguing about Dr. Kutler’s essay within the framework of courage or cowardice. I certainly understand why someone who served in the military is proud of that. But I also believe there are many ways to serve our great country, and that courage comes in many forms. Given the nature of some of the attacks on him in other forums, I think historians who write about Barack Obama will have to take into account the extra courage he and his wife had reach for when he decided to run for President. I don’t know many people who would have been willing to choose that path, under the circumstances.

Because these issues are complicated, I don’t see much value in name calling. People choose different career paths. They also have differing motivators and triggers for their moral compasses. That I chose a career in public service doesn’t mean I resent anyone who chose to support themselves by making money in the private, commercial sector. Nor do I tell them they have no business commenting on what happens in Washington. We all have different aptitudes, skills and things to offer the United States. Our country needs that; we would be a much poorer, weaker nation, if we weren’t able to recognize the value of differing, individual choices.

As to Presidents, only one, Dwight Eisenhower, served in the military at a high enough level to develop a strategic outlook. Reagan never saw combat, nor did George W. Bush. All our Presidents have had to deal with some issue areas with which they had little or no direct experience. And they do it within the framework of checks and balances. As countless essay on HNN have shown over the years, we may disagree on some of the outcomes, but being able to do so is one of the benefits of living in this great nation.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/7/2009

First, we have no idea whether the McChrystal report was leaked by the general or by the White House. Since he has not been fired, I suspect the latter.

Obama wants to keep the support of his cut-and-run-from-Iraq brothers, who now say cut and run from Afghanistan. At heart, Obama would probably like to cut and run from Afghanistan, but in the end he has no philosophy and will act pragmatically.

Kutler has no business bringing in the 50,000 American deaths in Vietnam, which have no bearing on the questions today. How many did we lose in our Iraqi victory, 8,000? Iraq, by the way, is looking much better all the time.

Omama is fortunate the heavy lifting was all done by the Bush administration before he was elected. Petraeus was found, and the answers developed. Gates has been an excellent DOD Secretary. Obama's first impulse, when he decided to retain Gates, was a good one. Now all he has to do is rubberstamp the plans of his Secretary, Admiral Mullen, and the three good generals, McChrystal, Petraeus, and Odierino. To do anything else will bring chaos to a situation now on the way to recovery. Obama has a better shot at reelection if he does not pull out, and his generals succeed, than if he quits. (Personally, I bet he quit!)

Donald Wolberg - 10/6/2009

I do not know if Mr. Benjamin is the "coward" that he seems to insist he is, and certainly, if he calls himself a "citizen" as he does, I would not doubt that he is. There is no obligation requiring "citizens" to be "brave" or denying themselves the right to being "cowards." But to deny citizen soldiers and their bravery all that it takes to protect their lives and the greater needs of their nation, is a not moral and ethical responsibility hat can be refused. However, coward or citizen is much besides the point, as is the tedious essay of Mr. Kutler. What is to the point is a willingness to make the decisions that need to be made, an ability that seems to not be in Mr. Obama's realm of ability. I suspect this is a fact of Mr. Obama's lack of experience, and inability to lead in matters more substantive than community organizing in Chicago. Not much of this matters to me as much as the danger and daily confrontation with death that American soldiers, and the soldiers of nations supporting us in Afghanistan find themselves facing every day because of the lack of leadership ability of an ill-prepared occupant of the office of President. Mr. Obama selected his generals to lead in the struggle for Afghanistan and signed on to their planned tactics and resource needs. If Mr. Biden or Ms Pelosi who have never commanded anything more than a menu at an expensive restaurant, is providing the "expertise" for Mr. Obama, the nation is less than well served.

Mr. Kutler's concerns for the supposed nuance of politics and politicians are a poor substitute for loyalty to our soldiers and doing all that is required to protect them. The loss of eight dead and 25 wounded in a remote valley of the horrid nation, is reality. Mr. Kutler and Mr. Benjamin seem able to toy with words, silly definitions and self-doubt while our kids in uniform.

Mr. Obama needs to review his history, and the Powell Doctrine (really the ideas of Casper Weinberger as I recall), and understand how wars are fought and won. Perhaps if Mr. Obama had acted weeks ago as he was expected to do, fewer Americans would be dead today and fewer who likely will die tomorrow whould not have paid that final price.

Jules R. Benjamin - 10/5/2009

The Wolberg comment is scary. Close to a recipe for military rule. Of course this scares me because, as you might expect, I am a coward. What other word can apply to someone who has not served his country. Well, what is wrong with "citizen."

Donald Wolberg - 10/5/2009

Mr. Kutler, apparently an apologist for the failed administration of Mr. Obama, or more a reflection of a President less capable than those he selected to serve, seems to forget that honor and service mean more to some than others. The generals, as is usual, know more of need in battle than those who never sered and understand nothing of what combat and strategy mean. Mr. Obama has not served the nation in uniform, is certainly less than intellectually gifted in matters of military or any history, and is driftless in a seas neededing decision. Aligned with the left, and apparently too embarassed to meet with military men engaged in combat leadership, one assumes because of his own experiential and knowledge gaps, Mr. Obama places our sons and daughters in uniform, and those of our allies at dire risk. His fear of decision making is frustrating on matters of national policy and economics, rich in failure for the administration, but is simply intolerable and lacking courage when he risks American lives. Mr. Kutler would seem to be similarly inclined and prepared to denigrate the generals who actually lead.