by Ray McGovern
It may become a biennial ritual. Every two years, if the commander-in-chief (or the commander-in-chief-elect) says he wants to throw more troops into an unwinnable war for no clear reason other than his political advantage, panderer-in-chief Robert Gates will shout "Outstanding!"
Never mind what the commanders in the field are saying - much less the troops who do the dying.
After meeting in Canada on Friday with counterparts from countries with troops in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Gates emphasized to reporters there is a shared interest in "surging as many forces as we can" into Afghanistan before the elections there in late September 2009.
At the concluding news conference, Gates again drove home the point, "It's important that we have a surge of forces."
Basking in the alleged success of the Iraq "surge," Gates knows a winning word when he hears one - whether the facts are with him or not. Although the conventional wisdom in Washington credits the "surge" with reducing violence in Iraq, military analysts point to other reasons - including Sunni tribes repudiating al-Qaeda extremists before the "surge" and the de facto ethnic cleansing of Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods.
In Washington political circles, there's also little concern about the 1,000 additional U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq since President George W. Bush started the "surge" early in 2007. The Americans killed during the "surge" represent roughly one-quarter of the total war dead whose numbers passed the 4,200 mark last week.
Nor is there much Washington commentary about what Bush's grotesque expenditure in blood and treasure will mean in the long term, even as the Iraqis put the finishing touches on a security pact that sets a firm deadline for a complete U.S. military withdrawal by the end of 2011, wording that may be Arabic for "thanks, but no thanks."
And most Americans do not know from reading the reports from their Fawning Corporate Media that the "surge" was such a "success" that the United States now has about 8,000 more troops in Iraq than were there before the "surge" rose and fell.
The real "success" of the Iraq "surge" is proving to be that it will let President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney leave office on Jan. 20, 2009, without having to admit that they were responsible for a strategic disaster. They can lay the blame for failure on their successors.
Gates a Winner?
Gates stands to be another beneficiary of the Iraq "surge."
Already, he has the Defense Secretary job. In November 2006, he was plucked from the relative obscurity of his Texas A&M presidency and put back into the international spotlight that he has always craved because he was willing to front for the "surge" when even Donald Rumsfeld was urging Bush to start a troop drawdown.
Now, the perceived "success" of the "surge" is giving hawkish Washington Democrats an excuse to rally around Gates and urge President-elect Barack Obama to keep him on.
Ever an accomplished bureaucrat, Gates is doing what he can to strengthen his case.
On Friday, Gates seemed at pains to demonstrate that his approach to Afghanistan is identical to the one publicly espoused by his prospective new employer who is currently reviewing Gates' job renewal application. And, as he did with the Iraq "surge" over the past two years, Gates now is talking up the prospects for an Afghan "surge."
"The notion that things are out of control in Afghanistan or that we're sliding toward a disaster, I think, is far too pessimistic," Gates said. Yet the argument that Gates used to support his relative optimism makes us veteran intelligence officers gag - at least those who remember the U.S. in Vietnam in the 1960s, the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and other failed counterinsurgencies.
"The Taliban holds no land in Afghanistan, and loses every time it comes into contact with coalition forces," Gates explained.
Our Secretary of Defense is insisting that U.S. troops have not lost one pitched battle with the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Engagements like the one on July 13, 2008, in which "insurgents" attacked an outpost in Konar province, killing nine U.S. soldiers and wounding 15 others, apparently do not qualify as "contact," but are merely "incidents."
Gates ought to read up on Vietnam, for his words evoke a similarly benighted comment by U.S. Army Col. Harry Summers after that war had been lost. In 1974, Summers was sent to Hanoi to try to resolve the status of Americans still listed as missing. To his North Vietnamese counterpart, Col. Tu, Summers made the mistake of bragging, "You know, you never beat us on the battlefield." Colonel Tu responded, "That may be so, but it is also irrelevant."
As Vietnamese Communist forces converged on Saigon in April 1975, the U.S. withdrew all remaining personnel. Summers was on the last Marine helicopter to fly off the roof of the American Embassy at 5:30 a.m. on April 30. As he later recalled, "I was the second-to-the-last Army guy out of Vietnam -- quite a searing experience."
Why is this relevant? Because if Obama repeats the mistakes of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford, U.S. Marine choppers may be plucking folks not only off the U.S. embassy roof in Baghdad, but also from the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan. No ignoramus, Gates knows that his comments about the Taliban losing "every time" that there is contact with coalition forces is as irrelevant as those of Col. Summers 34 years ago.
Yet, it would be folly to expect Gates to give advice to a superior that challenges the policies that Gates thinks his superior favors. Gates has been the consummate career careerist, going back to his days as head of analysis at CIA in the 1980s when he fashioned intelligence reports that gave the policymakers what they wanted to hear. Instead of the old-fashioned "bark-on" intelligence, the Gates variety was "apple-polished" intelligence.
Time Running Out for Gates
He wants to stay on as Defense Secretary and apparently thinks that his life-long strategy of telling his superiors what they want to hear will now work with Barack Obama. Gates is nearing the end of a highly sophisticated campaign to convince Obama and his advisers that the current Defense Secretary is just who they need at the Pentagon to execute Obama's policies - and look really bipartisan to boot.
The President-elect's position has long been that we need to send "at least two additional brigades" (about 7,000 troops) to Afghanistan. So the Defense Secretary would have us believe, as he said Friday, that "surging as many forces as we can" is an outstanding idea. And with troops having to leave Iraqi cities by next June, in the first stage of the U.S. withdrawal demanded by the draft status-of-forces agreement, there will be more soldiers available to send into the mountains of Afghanistan. Don't you love it when a plan comes together?
Ironically, this resembles closely the proposed policy of Sen. John McCain, who argued during the debate with Obama on Sept. 26 that "the same [surge] strategy" that Gen. David Petraeus implemented in Iraq is "going to have to be employed in Afghanistan." For good measure, Gov. Sarah Palin told Katie Couric "a surge in Afghanistan also will lead us to victory there, as it has proven to have done in Iraq."
Oops! Within a week, Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan undercut McCain and Palin, insisting emphatically that no Iraq-style "surge" of forces will end the conflict in Afghanistan. Speaking in Washington on Oct. 1, McKiernan employed unusual candor in describing Afghanistan as "a far more complex environment than I ever found in Iraq." The country's mountainous terrain, rural population, poverty, illiteracy, 400 major tribal networks, and history of civil war make it a unique challenge, he said.
"The word I don't use for Afghanistan is 'surge,'" McKiernan continued, adding that what is required is a "sustained commitment" to a counterinsurgency effort that could last many years and would ultimately require a political, not military, solution. McKiernan added that he doubts that "another facet of the Iraq strategy" - the U.S. military's programs to recruit tribes to oppose insurgents - can be duplicated in Afghanistan. "I don't want the military to be engaging the tribes," said McKiernan.
Recently, President-elect Obama has been relatively quiet on Afghanistan, and one lives in hope that before he actually commits to sending more brigades to Afghanistan he will assemble a group of people who know something about that country, the forces at play in the region, and insurgency. If he gathers the right people, and if he listens, it seems a good bet that his campaign rhetoric about Afghanistan being the good war will remain just that, rhetoric.
In any event, press reports suggest that Gates has only another week or so left to pretend to the President-elect that he thinks the ideas reflected in Obama's rhetoric are outstanding. And, as Gates' predecessor Rumsfeld might have put it, you have to go with the rhetoric you've got. Right now, the word "surge" brings nods of approval at influential dinner parties in Washington.
What does Gen. McKiernan know, anyway? Gates' Pentagon says that McKiernan now has requested three additional brigade combat teams and additional aviation assets. And yet, he says he's allergic to a "surge"?
If past is precedent, Gen. McKiernan already realizes he has little choice but to salute smartly, do what he is told, and not diverge from what inexperienced civilians like Gates are promoting. After all, didn't McNamara know best in the early days of Vietnam and didn't Rumsfeld know best at the start of the Iraq War?
As the saying goes, if you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you are a general assigned a mission - though it appear to be Mission Impossible - you salute smartly and use those troops entrusted to you to do what armies do. At least that has been the tradition since Vietnam. Such behavior is a disgrace, when generals know better.
Ambitious, but Empty Suits
I'm all for civilian control of the military. But I see much more harm than good in political generals - like the anointed David Petraeus - who give ample evidence of being interested, first and foremost, in their own advancement. Why do I say that? Because Petraeus, like McKiernan, knows Afghanistan is another quagmire. But he won't say it.
Rather than do the right thing and brief his superiors on the realities of Afghanistan, Petraeus and the generals he has promoted seem likely to follow the time-honored practice of going along to get along. After all, none of them get killed or wounded. Rather the vast majority get promoted, so long as they keep any dissenting thoughts to themselves.
It is the same pattern we witnessed regarding Vietnam. Although the most senior military brass knew, as the French learned before them, that the war/occupation could not be successful, no senior officer had the integrity and courage to speak out and try to halt the lunacy.
Are There Army Generals With Guts?
It will be interesting to see what McKiernan actually does, if and when more troops are surged down his throat. If he has the courage of his convictions, maybe he'll quit...and perhaps even say something.
As a former Army officer, I would love to see an Army general display the courage that one saw in Admiral William Fallon, former commander of CENTCOM, who openly refused to "do Iran" on his watch, and got cashiered for it. Two years ago, Army Generals John Abizaid and George Casey, speaking on behalf of their senior commanders in the field, pushed back strongly against the idea of adding more U.S. troops to those already in Iraq. They finally succeeded in persuading former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld of the merits of their argument.
It was when Rumsfeld himself started to challenge the advice Bush was getting (to "surge" and thus not "lose" Iraq on his watch) that Robert Gates was brought in to replace Rumsfeld, relieve Abizaid and Casey from command, and help anoint Gen. Petraeus as surge-savior. (For details on Rumsfeld's break with Bush, see Consortiumnews.com's "Robert Gates: As Bad as Rumsfeld?")
But rather than speak out, Abizaid folded his tent like an Arab and silently stole away. Casey accepted the sinecure of Army chief of staff as hush money. And a thousand more U.S. troops died. The temporary respite provided by the 29,000 troops who survived the surge helped achieve the administration's main purpose - deferring the inevitable U.S. troop withdrawal (not in "victory" as Bush liked to say, but by demand of the Iraqi government) until Bush and Cheney were safely out of office.
As for Gates, what he does not know about Afghanistan and insurgency could fill a medium-sized library. So could what Gates does know about how to ingratiate himself with the next level up.
If it is true that serious consideration is being given to keeping Gates on past January, it will be interesting to see if the pandering padding of his résumé eventually wins the day with the President-elect.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He also serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).