America's Afghan dilemma: Goliath as David

Barack Obama’s appointment of David H Petraeus to lead the war against the Taliban highlights enduring tensions in the United States over the role of the military in its political life, says Godfrey Hodgson.
Godfrey Hodgson
6 July 2010

There is a dichotomy in the American tradition as deep and far older than red vs blue states, or liberals vs conservatives. It is the tension between a proud military tradition and a passionate anti-military instinct.

It was one of the contentions of the controversial but wise Samuel Huntington in his classic The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (1957) that the United States was fortunate enough to grow up without needing to concern itself too much about security because it was surrounded by European powers (Britain, France and Spain) and defended by the Royal Navy. That interpretation is questionable in itself. But it ignores the other, strongly military, tradition.

The United States was created by war. It expanded in part through negotiation and treaty but even more, thanks to the Mexican war (1846-48), by conquest. Its first president was its first commander-in-chief, and twelve of the forty-four presidents have been former generals: Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison after the war of 1812, Zachary Taylor and Franklin Pierce after the Mexican war, Ulysses Grant and five others after the civil war. as well as Dwight D Eisenhower after the second world war.

The interplay of war and politics, however, suggests another point that is relevant to the sacking of General Stanley A McChrystal and his replacement by General David H Petraeus to command the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Afghanistan.

Top gun, bottom dog

For most of its history, the United States has been able to deploy far more powerful military force than its adversaries. In the 19th century, both before and after the civil war, American officers gained military experience in Indian wars where their troops’ superiority in firepower and mobility was usually assured.  In its 20th-century wars, American generals - John J Pershing in 1918, Eisenhower in 1944-45, William C Westmoreland in Vietnam, and Norman Schwarzkopf in Kuwait/Iraq in 1990-91 - commanded forces that possessed crushing military advantage (even if deploying this effectively was another matter entirely). The United States joined the first world war in 1917 after Germany had been exhausted; in the second, it overwhelmed Germany and Japan (along with its allies) through its far greater industrial-military capacity.

Yet the United States began life as a small country that expended blood and treasure in throwing off colonial rule - and the legacy of that experience is the enduring presence, deep in the American psyche, of an “underdog” mentality. This contradiction - equivalent to Philistine-warrior Goliath identifying with shepherd-boy David in the biblical story - explains much of the dilemma that confronts President Obama and his shifting cast of commanders in Afghanistan (see Paul Rogers, “Afghanistan: the impossible choice”, 1 July 2010).

A war of logics

Both McChrystal and his patron and mentor Petraeus are philosophers of counterinsurgency.  Their role is to suppress what are in effect guerrilla forces with a predominantly American army that is vastly richer in resources and weaponry (see David Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency [C Hurst, 2010])..

The analogy might be outrageous, but they are in the position, not of George Washington encouraging a half-starved army at Valley Forge, nor Francis Marion the Swamp Fox, but of their colonial adversaries: General John Burgoyne and Lord Cornwallis.

The British commanders in the revolutionary war won most of their battles until Yorktown. But as General Howe was well aware, there was not much point in winning battles if the casualties could not be replaced by reinforcements. A certain General William Murray, watching the war from afar (he was stationed in Minorca) observed shrewdly that the “Americans’ plan ought to be to lose a battle every week, ‘til the British army was reduced to nothing”.

The same problem confronted General Westmoreland in Vietnam. He was not in danger of losing a major battle (though there were tactical encounters that took his troops by surprise). But as long as the North Vietnamese could reinforce almost at will down the “Ho Chi Minh trail”, Westmoreland and his commander-in-chief Lyndon B Johnson were constrained by their inability to persuade Congress to send reinforcements. LBJ chose not to seek re-election in March 1968; three months later, Westmorland left Vietnam to become the US army’s chief-of-staff.

In Afghanistan, General Petraeus has already persuaded a reluctant or at least cautious President Obama to provide him with another “surge” of troops. Yet Obama is committed to begin withdrawals by mid-2011. It is not clear how the distinct military and political logics at work here (the latter closely aligned with the timetable for the presidential election of 2012) will work themselves out (see Joe Klein, “Can Obama and Petraeus Work Together?”, Time, 24 June 2010).

The Taliban movement itself will have a big part to play in resolving this question; its source of support in Afghanistan may largely be confined to the Pushtun population, but the anger provoked by civilian casualties of American air-strikes (including drone-attacks) fuels intense opposition to the foreign presence.

As a special-operations hero, McChrystal enjoyed the mystique of a guerrilla even while running a counterinsurgency campaign. He, and especially his admiring coterie of special-ops veterans, gave a lot away in their astonishingly indiscreet talk in front of a magazine reporter who could hardly believe his luck (see "The Runaway General", Rolling Stone, 22 June 2010). There was naiveté, conceit and disrespect for their commander-in-chief, which was why their adored chieftain had to go. There was also the message that they were trying to operate counterinsurgency with an insurgent’s mindset.

But something else was revealed in the sweaty machismo of the Rolling Stone interview: that Stanley McChrystal and his military comrades represent in acute and concentrated form a much more widespread American mentality. Samuel Huntington, as long ago as the late 1950s, put it in effect like this: the United States does not invade other countries because it wants their territory, but because it believes it is doing them a favour by exporting its own ideology (see Paul Rogers, “America and the world’s jungle”, 17 June 2010).

The argument had an equally immediate charge in Huntington’s later book (which gained notoriety for its title alone), The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1998). Those on the receiving end of American intervention may be persuaded to develop a taste for fast food or even baseball, but are unlikely to adopt American political institutions - even less as a result of invasion, for all that this may be accompanied by teams of devoted agronomists and medical missionaries.

How it ends

The dilemma for American policy is now being presented in terms of whether or not Nato commanders or their Afghan protégés should start to talk to the Taliban. A Taliban spokesman has (predictably) taken advantage of an inquiry from the BBC’s foreign-affairs editor John Simpson to dismiss even the possibility of negotiations.

Still, the facts are compelling. General Petraeus, and even the firebrand McChrystal, the George S Patton of his day, admit that the Taliban are succeeding more than they thought possible. American military casualties, along with British and other (including Norwegian) are rising; June 2010 saw the highest monthly total in almost nine years of war.

Hamid Karzai, the American-installed president of the Islamic republic of Afghanistan, shows signs of chafing at the requirement that he obey American generals. As in the last days of Saigon, corruption is being followed by capital flight. No doubt some of the fleeing capital ends up in the bank-accounts of the Taliban. That would mean the American taxpayer was supplying the enemy not only with stolen weapons, as has happened in every recent American war, but also with cold cash - as already happens at local level (see Paul Rogers, “The AfPak war: failures of success”, 8 April 2010).

UN officials and other outside observers believe there must be talks. Most telling of all, David Petraeus achieved the outward appearance of victory in  Iraq - and and enhanced his own reputation in the process - by forging links with Sunni tribal leaders. By appointing him as the successor to Stanley McChrystal, the commander-in-chief  “becomes beholden to the most celebrated soldier of his generation...The question of who really is in charge remains murky” (see Andrew C Bacevich, “Obama is in hock to the hawks”, Spectator, 30 June 2010). Petraeus’s letter to the troops of 4 July 2010 offers a few clues as to his likely approach, including the phrase: “We must never forget that the decisive terrain in Afghanistan is the human terrain.”

Nato governments, such as the Dutch and the Canadian, need to withdraw troops from a unpopular war they cannot afford.  The current American government itself is losing interest in the war, as has been the habit of many of its predecessors. Military glory has its attractions. But the civilian spirit has a stubborn tendency to reassert itself in American political life.

The civilian President Obama has to insist that he will not give up until Afghanistan has become a member of the American commonwealth of nations. Yet if I were a betting man, I would place a modest stake on this proposition: once the dangerous mid-term elections of November 2010 are over, it will be revealed that mutually acceptable discussions (not negotiations: Washington is a city of lawyers and of the word) have been going on with the Taliban...since June or July 2010. And that the feted general David H Petraeus, like William C Westmoreland in Vietnam, is doomed to run out of troops, time - and political support.

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