Page 1 of 2 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA The pressure of an expanding war
By Tom Engelhardt
Yes, Stanley McChrystal is the general from the dark side (and proud of it). So
the recent sacking of Afghan commander General David McKiernan after less than
a year in the field and McChrystal's appointment as the man to run the Afghan
War seems to signal that the Barack Obama administration is going for broke.
It's heading straight into what, in the Vietnam era, was known as "the big
General McChrystal comes from a world where killing by any means is the norm
and a blanket of secrecy provides the necessary protection. For five years he
commanded the Pentagon's super-secret Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC),
which, among other things, ran what Seymour Hersh has described as an
"executive assassination wing" out of vice president Cheney's office. (Cheney
just returned the favor by
giving the newly appointed general a ringing endorsement: "I think you'd be
hard put to find anyone better than Stan McChrystal.")
McChrystal gained a certain renown when president George W Bush outed him as
the man responsible for tracking down and eliminating al-Qaeda-in-Mesopotamia
leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The secret force of "manhunters" he commanded had
its own secret detention and interrogation center near Baghdad, Camp Nama,
where bad things happened regularly, and the unit there, Task Force 6-26, had
its own slogan: "If you don't make them bleed, they can't prosecute for it."
Since some of the task force's men were, in the end, prosecuted, the bleeding
evidently wasn't avoided.
In the Bush years, McChrystal was reputedly extremely close to secretary of
defense Donald Rumsfeld. The super-secret force he commanded was, in fact, part
of Rumsfeld's effort to seize control of, and Pentagonize, the covert,
on-the-ground activities that were once the purview of the Central Intelligence
Behind McChrystal lies a string of targeted executions that may run into the
hundreds, as well as accusations of torture and abuse by troops under his
command (and a role in the cover-up of the circumstances surrounding the death
of Army Ranger and former National Football League player Pat Tillman). The
general has reportedly long thought of Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single
battlefield, which means that he was a premature adherent to the idea of an
Af-Pak - that is, expanded - war.
While in Afghanistan in 2008, the New York Times reported, he was a "key
advocate ... of a plan, ultimately approved by President George W Bush, to use
American commandos to strike at Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan". This
end-of-term Bush program provoked such anger and blowback in Pakistan that it
was reportedly halted after two cross-border raids, one of which killed
All of this offers more than a hint of the sort of "new thinking and new
approaches" - to use Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' words - that the Obama
administration expects McChrystal to bring to the devolving Af-Pak battlefield.
He is, in a sense, both a legacy figure from the worst days of the
Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era and the first-born child of Obama-era Washington's
growing desperation and hysteria over the wars it inherited.
And here's the good news - We luv the guy. Just luv him to death.
We loved him back in 2006, when Bush first outed him and Newsweek reporters
Michael Hirsh and John Barry dubbed him "a rising star" in the army and one of
the "Jedi Knights who are fighting in what Cheney calls 'the shadows'."
It's no different today in what's left of the mainstream news analysis
business. In that mix of sports lingo, Hollywood-ese, and just plain hyperbole
that makes armchair war strategizing just so darn much fun, Washington Post
columnist David Ignatius, for instance, claimed that US Central Command supremo
General David Petraeus, who picked McChrystal as his man in Afghanistan, is
"assembling an all-star team" and that McChrystal himself is "a rising
superstar who, like Petraeus, has helped reinvent the US Army". Is that all?
When it came to pure, instant hagiography, however, the prize went to Elisabeth
Bumiller and Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, who wrote a front-pager, "A
General Steps from the Shadows", that painted a picture of McChrystal as a
mutant cross between Superman and a saint.
Among other things, it described the general as "an ascetic who ... usually
eats just one meal a day, in the evening, to avoid sluggishness. He is known
for operating on a few hours' sleep and for running to and from work while
listening to audio books on an iPod ... [He has] an encyclopedic, even
obsessive, knowledge about the lives of terrorists ... [He is] a
warrior-scholar, comfortable with diplomats, politicians ... " and so on. The
quotes Bumiller and Mazzetti dug up from others were no less spectacular: "He's
got all the Special Ops attributes, plus an intellect," and "If you asked me
the first thing that comes to mind about General McChrystal ... I think of no
From the gush of good cheer about his appointment, you might almost conclude
that the general was not human at all, but an advanced android (a good one, of
course) and the "elite" world (of murder and abuse) he emerged from an
unbearably sexy one.
Above all, as we're told here and elsewhere, what's so good about the new
appointment is that McChrystal is "more aggressive" than his stick-in-the-mud
predecessor. He will, as Bumiller and Thom Shanker report in another piece,
bring "a more aggressive and innovative approach to a worsening seven-year
war". The general, we're assured, likes operations without body fat, but with
plenty of punch. And though no one quite says this, given his closeness to
Rumsfeld and possibly Cheney, both desperately eager to "take the gloves off"
on a planetary scale, his mentality is undoubtedly a global-war-on-terror one,
which translates into no respect for boundaries, restraints, or the sovereignty
After all, as journalist Gareth Porter pointed out recently in a thoughtful
portrait carried on Asia Times Online of the new Afghan War commander, former
Rumsfeld granted the parent of JSOC, the Special Operations Command (SOCOM),
"the authority to carry out actions unilaterally anywhere on the globe". (See
US choice hardly McChrystal clear, May 14, 2009, Asia Times Online.)
Think of McChrystal's appointment, then, as a decision in Washington to
dispatch the bull directly to the china shop with the most meager of hopes that
the results won't be smashed Afghans and Pakistanis. The Post's Ignatius even
compares McChrystal's boss Petraeus and Obama's special envoy to the region,
Richard Holbrooke, to "two headstrong bulls in a small paddock". He then
concludes his paean to all of them with this passage - far more ominous than he
means it to be:
Obama knows the immense difficulty of trying to fix a
broken Afghanistan and make it a functioning, modern country. But with his two
bulls, Petraeus and Holbrooke, he's marching his presidency into the "graveyard
of empires" anyway.
McChrystal is evidently the third bull, the
one slated to start knocking over the tombstones.
An expanding Af-Pak war
Of course, there are now so many bulls in this particular china shop that
smashing is increasingly the name of the game. At this point, the early moves
of the Obama administration, when combined with the momentum of the situation
it inherited, have resulted in the expansion of the Af-Pak war in at least six
areas, which only presage further expansion in the months to come:
1. Expanding troop commitment: In February, President Obama
ordered a "surge" of 17,000 extra troops into Afghanistan, increasing US forces
there by 50%. (Then-commander McKiernan had called for 30,000 new troops.) In
March, another 4,000 American military advisors and trainers were promised. The
first of the surge troops, reportedly ill-equipped, are already arriving. In
March, it was announced that this troop surge would be accompanied by a
"civilian surge" of diplomats, advisors, and the like; in April, it was
reported that, because the requisite diplomats and advisors couldn't be found,
the civilian surge would actually be made up largely of military personnel.
In preparation for this influx, there has been massive base and outpost
building in the southern parts of that country, including the construction of
443-acre Camp Leatherneck in that region's "desert of death". When finished, it
will support up to 8,000 US troops, and a raft of helicopters and planes. Its
airfield, which is under construction, has been described as the "largest such
project in the world in a combat setting".
2. Expanding CIA drone war: The CIA is running an escalating
secret drone war in the skies over the Pakistani borderlands with Afghanistan,
a "targeted" assassination program of the sort that McChrystal specialized in
while in Iraq. Since last September, more than three dozen drone attacks - the
Los Angeles Times put the number at 55 - have been launched, as opposed to 10
in 2006-2007. The program has reportedly taken out a number of mid-level
al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, but also caused significant civilian casualties,
destabilized the Pashtun border areas of Pakistan, and fostered support for the
Islamic guerrillas in those regions. As Noah Shachtman wrote recently at his
Danger Room website:
According to the American press, a pair of
missiles from the unmanned aircraft killed "at least 25 militants". In the
local media, the dead were simply described as "29 tribesmen present there".
That simple difference in description underlies a serious problem in the
campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. To Americans, the drones over
Pakistan are terrorist-killers. In Pakistan, the robotic planes are wiping out
David Kilcullen, a key advisor to Petraeus during
the Iraq "surge" months, and counterinsurgency expert Andrew McDonald Exum
recently called for a moratorium on these attacks on the New York Times op-ed
page. ("Press reports suggest that over the last three years drone strikes have
killed about 14 terrorist leaders. But, according to Pakistani sources, they
have also killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for every militant
killed, a hit rate of 2% - hardly 'precision'.") As it happens, however, the
Obama administration is deeply committed to its drone war. As CIA Director Leon
Panetta put the matter, "Very frankly, it's the only game in town in terms of
confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership."
3. Expanding Air Force drone war: The US Air Force now seems to
be getting into the act as well. There are conflicting reports about just what
it is trying to do, but it has evidently brought its own set of Predator and
Reaper drones into play in Pakistani skies, in conjunction, it seems, with a
somewhat reluctant Pakistani military. Though the outlines of this program are
foggy at best, this nonetheless represents an expansion of the war.
4. Expanding political interference: Quite a different kind of
escalation is also underway. Washington is evidently attempting to insert yet
another figure from the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era into the Afghan mix. Not so
long ago, Zalmay Khalilzad, the neo-con former American viceroy in Kabul and
then Baghdad, was considering making a run for the Afghan presidency against
Hamid Karzai, the leader the Obama administration is desperate to ditch.
In March, reports - hotly denied by Holbrooke and others - broke in the British
press of a US/British plan to "undermine President Karzai of Afghanistan by
forcing him to install a powerful chief of staff to run the government".
Karzai, so the rumors went, would be reduced to "figurehead" status, while a
"chief executive with prime ministerial-style powers" not provided for in the
Afghan Constitution would essentially take over the running of the weak and
This week, Helene Cooper reported on the front page of the New York Times that
Khalilzad would be that man. He "could assume a powerful, unelected position
inside the Afghan government under a plan he is discussing with Hamid Karzai,
the Afghan president, according to senior American and Afghan officials." He
would then be "the chief executive officer of Afghanistan".