This piece over at Foreign Policy is terrific, even though it paints someone I greatly admire (Petraeus) in a less than stellar light. Recent rhetoric on Afghanistan has become a bit schitzo, the military is trying to tell everyone things are going well and the White House is trying to tell everyone its not improving all that much. One would think any signs of positive change in the conflict would allow Obama to stand a bit more firmly on his much maligned withdrawal plans for mid-2011. One would also think it would be in the best interest of the military to paint things in a less flattering light so as to force further commitment from the Executive branch, however it seems things have come out a bit backwards.
While Obama’s goal may have been to bring the war to a close in a fashion that could (at best) be considered a draw it nows seems like the goal is to get out regardless of any real endgame. The latest blustering announcement from Hamid Karzai that he’s cozying up to Iran, in all likely hood with a view towards locking down his next sugar-daddy, will most likely help expedite a US with drawl on terms that could in no way be claimed satisfactory for the US or indeed NATO.
I can’t help but wonder if the effort made by the military establishment to put the state of the war in a positive light is more about shaping the legacy of the war. Petraeus is, in this writers opinion the most politically astute U.S. General since Eisenhower. Perhaps he sees that if he can convince the public that ISAF is making positive progress in spite of its impending tragic conclusion, he can provide some form of defense against any attempts to make the armed forces the scapegoat for American failures in Afghanistan. Should the U.S. begin its extrication from Afghanistan before or during Obama’s reelection campaign, the Republican party is sure to use the situation to its advantage by criticizing Obama’s handling of the conflict and its conclusion. It would then seem like a smart idea for the Department of Defense to protect itself from being made a scapegoat should things end badly. Additionally if the DoD can convince Congress that a positive conclusion may indeed be achievable through perseverance they’re much more likely to sway a (soon to be) Republican controlled congress in its favor effectively forming a mutually beneficial alliance that both secures greater Congressional support for the military, and greater political capital for the Republicans coming out of the mid term elections and heading into the 2012 Presidential campaign season.
I also think it should be made clear that how much of this posturing is being propelled by Petraeus or the DoD can’t really be deciphered. Both have a lot at stake, the military will primarily be looking out for its budgets in a time when even more cost cutting looms, extending the war would be the best way to keep the DoD’s most prized possessions off the chopping block. Additionally it has to look to the future, the debacle that was the conclusion of the Vietnam War had a massive impact on the culture of the military in the U.S. avoiding a similar debacle here is certainly in their best interest. Pertraeus also has quite a bit on the line, the tactical and operational success of ‘the Surge’ in Iraq secured his place as the militaries golden boy, his time as commander of CentCom afforded him the opportunity to exhibit his obvious foreign policy savvy, these two factors alone put him atop many Republican shortlists for future a Presidential nomination.
This all was put into question when in July, Obama relieved General McChrystal of command in Afghanistan, replacing him with Petraeus was a political coup for Obama. It showed the world he was putting his best man in place to face his toughest challenge, it also had the benefit of setting Petraeus up for failure by giving him a near impossible task under the deadlines in place, perhaps with an eye towards tarnishing his political future or at the very least removing him from the 2012 nominations list. For this reason Petraeus himself has every motivation to see that if the conflict is coming to a rapid conclusion provide some political cover for the eventual fall out.
While this speculation on my part seems to be straying into the realms of conspiracy theory, I feel I should be clear that much of this is educated guess work on what at present seems to be political posturing for an as yet unknowable endgame. If any of these scenarios are in fact as close to the truth as I fear they might be it certainly suggest that the state of civil military relations in the U.S. are by no means as cut and dry as some might like to think them.