Monday, July 5, 2010

US military and politics By Rafia Zakaria

Come September and the US would have been at war for almost a decade. The conflict that began some nine years ago as a Donald Rumsfeld-contrived ‘shock and awe’ exercise metamorphosed into a campaign to win ‘hearts and minds’.

The unceremonious departure of Gen Stanley McChrystal has reinvigorated speculations concerning the possibility of victory in Afghanistan and the seeming naiveté of Barack Obama as a war president.

For Pakistanis watching the denouement of the McChrystal saga from the frontlines of the war on terror, the firing of a war-time general by a civilian president holds lessons of its own. First, of course, is the testament provided by the act of the civilian-power dynamic in the world’s only superpower. In the American constitutional scheme, so complete is the supremacy of the executive over the military that a civilian president can sack a sitting general without much ado, even while being weeks away from a major offensive.

While speculation continues about whether the general’s unceremonious departure stemmed from an act of political suicide or was a desperate attempt by the Obama administration to lend a new face to a faltering war, there remains little question that Obama’s decision was lawful.

From a military and strategic perspective, Gen McChrystal’s departure signals the difficulties in implementing COIN, or the ‘counter-insurgency’ doctrine, popularised by the American military. Focused on using a large troop presence to secure areas and win the support of the local population, COIN came under severe scrutiny during the Afghanistan review earlier this year. As the now infamous article in the Rolling Stone magazine indicates, when the decision to order larger troop numbers was made, it seemed that Gen McChrystal had won and President Obama was committed to devoting the resources that would translate into dividends in Afghanistan.

Of course, as pointed out by Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations in an op-ed article published by The New York Times the day after the general’s resignation, troop levels in Afghanistan still remained far below those in Iraq and many promised reinforcements had not arrived. The lacklustre success of the Marja offensive and the increasing number of casualties — coming as they did before the initiation of an even riskier campaign in Kandahar — also signalled the increasing intractability of implementing a strategy that would yield dividends in the form of winning over Afghan hearts and minds.

The above reflects some of the challenges in implementing a strategy that has been touted as the magic solution for the Afghanistan problem. Ironically, however, the biggest challenges in implementing COIN lie not in the logistics of war-making or the forbidding terrain of Afghanistan but the juxtaposition of the American civilian-military power dynamic in a post 9/11 world. While the supremacy of the political branches of the government over the military and the unquestioned status of the president as the commander in chief is one of the cornerstones of American democracy, it also places certain decision-making challenges on the political branches.

In the post 9/11 culture of fear, political figures — be they in Congress or in the executive branch — have made the provision of security a staple of their political campaigns. Candidates running for Congress, the Senate and even local offices continue to be reluctant to evaluate the efficacy of existing strategies and remain committed to seeing counter-terrorism as a political issue rather than a military one. The American public in turn unquestionably believes in the necessity of endless counter-terror dollars in making the homeland secure, thus making the political appeal of pandering to their fears a staple of electoral politics.

Resultantly, the political branches of the US government are unwilling to make unpopular decisions regarding foreign wars. Military strategy is thus dictated by the political demands of being tough on terrorists and producing low-cost victories that respond to the population’s insatiable demand for security. Even those such as Vice President Biden, who were vehemently opposed to the increase of troops in Afghanistan, remain politically committed to the idea that the quick elimination of the bad guys is crucial to American security.

Even as the demands of the military change in response to unconventional warfare, American elected representatives refuse to close down bases and stop manufacturing equipment designed for a Cold War world, for fear of eliminating jobs and angering constituents. The consequence is that the war in Afghanistan has become a primarily political campaign outsourced to the United States military, which is then expected to deliver the political material to orchestrate campaign narratives that present candidates as being committed to national security, rather than actually producing positive results in places such as Afghanistan.

It is this dynamic between a military on the ground assessing the realities of Afghanistan and a political branch demanding material for electoral campaigns that is painfully obvious if one looks past the macho grandstanding and crass humour of the Rolling Stone-McChrystal variety.

The reticence of the political branches to truly evaluate the connections between security at home and wars abroad have thus essentially allotted a political task to the US military. Not only does this create logistical and training challenges, it also misunderstands the ultimate purpose of a military as a primarily destructive force to be utilised in only the direst of circumstances. The political army envisioned by the executive to win over hearts and minds, one that builds roads and tunnels, digs wells and befriends villagers while also eliminating the Taliban and protecting itself, cannot be produced without also politicising generals.

Winning hearts and minds is ultimately and essentially a political project, entrusted by American lawmakers to a military force that has had to transform itself in response. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that after almost a decade of such painfully wrought transformations the historically apolitical American military might begin to have some opinions.

The writer is a US-based attorney teaching constitutional history and political philosophy

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