This Mission Is Not McChrystal Clear
Our troops are not in Afghanistan for a social experiment.


Andrew C. McCarthy

Deep down, national-security conservatives know President Obama will not wage a decisive war against America’s enemies in Afghanistan. They also know that the young men and women we already have there are sitting ducks. Ralph Peters notes that our commanders, obsessed with avoiding civilian casualties, have imposed mind-boggling rules of engagement (ROE) on our forces, compelling them to retreat from contact with the enemy and denying them resort to overwhelming force — including the denial of artillery and air cover when they are under siege. As the Washington Examiner’s Byron York recently reported, even some Afghans are telling our commanders to “stop being so fussy . . . and kill the enemy.”

Yet the national-security Right is urging that we up the ante and put another 40,000 American lives at risk in this hostile theater, under this commander in chief and the same military leadership that dreamed up the ROE. Why? To attempt, under the rubric of “counterinsurgency,” the unlikeliest of social-engineering experiments: bringing big, modern, collectivist, secular government to a segmented, corrupt, tribal Islamic society — a society that has been at war with itself for three dozen years, which is to say, since the first futile effort to impose big, modern, collectivist, secular government ran smack into Afghanistan’s tribal Islamic ways.

Many on the right who urge the troop escalation want no part of the experiment. But they are hallucinating, too. They have convinced themselves that just because they would take the fight to our enemies, Barack Obama also is inclined to do so: the same Barack Obama who has decried American “militarism” since he was a Columbia undergrad, whose top foreign-policy priority has been to make nice with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and who would have to overcome every fiber of his blame-America-first being to wage the war that needs to be waged. It is foolish to believe that, and it would be much worse than foolish to put American lives at risk based on that belief.

Obama plainly does not want to deploy more troops. He has boxed himself in, though, by following the Democratic practice of politicizing our national security. Though it is doubtful that Obama would see any military action in pursuit of American interests as righteous, his campaign hyped Afghanistan as the good war, the “war of necessity”– the better to denigrate Iraq as the bad war, the “war of choice.” He compounded the problem in March when, in the course of adding 21,000 troops to the Afghanistan mission, he couldn’t resist sniping at his predecessor, saying President Bush had turned a deaf ear to our commanders, who had been “clear about the resources they need.” So now Obama finds himself presiding over the good war of necessity with a commander — the commander he chose — who is quite clear that he needs 40,000 more troops.

That commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is a highly decorated veteran with impressive combat-command experience. He is also a progressive big-thinker on geopolitics, having been a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Harvard’s Kennedy School. One perceives more of the academic than the warrior in his startling white paper proposal for what is labeled a “counterinsurgency” campaign.

The proposal was strategically leaked to the Washington Post last week. The president’s knees are buckling as opportunistic politics give way to political accountability. The general has seen many a former courtier thrown under Obama’s bus and has no intention of finding tire tracks across his camouflage. McChrystal knows a commander’s declaration of what the mission requires carries enormous weight — for many of my friends on the right, it’s game, set, and match. With McChrystal having made public his expert assessment of what the mission demands, the president, a military novice, must either give it to him or be blamed for the ensuing failure.

The mission, though, must be the one the commander has been given by his civilian superiors, who answer to the American people. It is not the commander’s place to redefine the mission as something the American people never authorized and never would. But that is what McChrystal is endeavoring to do. He describes his plan as “revolutionary.” He’s sure got that right: The proposal would radically alter the understanding most Americans have about why we are in Afghanistan — as he puts it, his proposal would “redefine the nature of the fight.”

To be sure, a general’s military judgments are owed great deference, particularly by those of us without military backgrounds. But labeling McChrystal’s proposal a “military strategy” doesn’t make it one, and this proposal happens to be short on combat planning and long on sociological theory. On the latter, we don’t owe him any more deference than we do the ineffable Joe Biden.