The Senate voted unanimously to confirm Gen. David Petraeus to replace fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal to lead the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. General Petraeus stepped down as the head of US Central Command and will continue with General McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Many view President Obama’s decision to replace McChrystal with Petraeus as a bold and brilliant political strategy. President Obama was able to shift the focus away from McChrystal and the Rolling Stone article by demonstrating a level of leadership that, up to this point, many wondered if he had.
If the issue were simply a political one, all would be better at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but it’s not. In his June 23 statement in the Rose Garden introducing General Petraeus, President Obama said, “… this is a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy.” Mr. President, the policy is the problem. Replacing McChrystal with Petraeus is a new face on a failed strategy. Without a clear and substantive change in policy, a change in leadership is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic or putting lipstick on a pig.
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In the June 23 statement, President Obama also said, “We have a clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum. We are going to build Afghan capacity. We are going to relentlessly apply pressure on al-Qaeda and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same.” To further this effort, President Obama has earmarked $33 billion in the Appropriation Act of 2010. This is no more than throwing good money after bad. It’s a bankrupt policy that’s bankrupting America.
The Obama administration should learn the lessons of the past and look at the collapse of the former Soviet Union as an indication of where America could be headed. Contrary to popular belief, the Soviet Union did not collapse solely due to America’s increases in defense spending and the Soviet’s inability to maintain or surpass similar spending levels. It was due in large part to the demands that significant increases in defense spending placed on an already fragile Soviet economic structure. The Soviet economy stagnated during the cold war and later collapsed because of an inability of the Kremlin to meet basic social and market needs as military spending consumed a disproportionate share of resources.
The war in Afghanistan is not winnable in a traditional American military context. Conventional US forces and strategy will not be able to establish a central controlling government in this region of the world. Afghanistan has never been defeated militarily. It is where empires go to die. The Greeks, Indians, Persians, Mongolians, British and Russians have tried to hold Afghanistan, but never succeeded.
According to historians, Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. lost more men and more animals crossing the Hindu Kush than all his subsequent campaigns in Central Asia. In 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan; in 1841 after an Afghan revolt, 4,500 British troops withdrew. In most recent history, the Russians invaded Afghanistan on August 7, 1978. After nine years of fighting a US-, Saudi Arabia- and Pakistani-backed mujahideen resistance, the Soviet troop withdrawal began on May 15, 1988, and ended on February 15, 1989.
As Americans struggle to deal with the most recent financial collapse and an economy in deep recession, there are few if any financial resources left to commit to this “fools errand” in Central Asia. As states cut back on police forces, teachers and basic social services, Americans need the financial support of their national government to bolster and rebuild failing state economies. Unfortunately, like the former Soviet Union, the American national government is finding it increasingly difficult to meet the basic social and market needs of its states as military spending consumes a disproportionate share of already limited resources. America can ill afford increased military spending to continue Bush’s folly.
What Dr. King said in 1963 about Vietnam is true today in Iraq and Afghanistan:
“There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings [with the election of President Obama]. Then came the buildup in Vietnam [Afghanistan] and I watched the [social] program[s] broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam [Afghanistan] continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.”
The US and its allies could “disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and attack the military capability of the Taliban regime …” if more of this effort and money were spent on winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan and Pakistani people through real humanitarian assistance such as water, food, medicine, blankets and building supplies.
The problem with this solution is that those who fuel and promote the military industrial complex in America do not profit from the sale of humanitarian assistance. They profit from war. So, change McChrystal with Petraeus or MacArthur, Marshall or George Armstrong Custer if you wish. Without a clear and substantive change in policy, a change in leadership is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic or putting lipstick on a pig.