Will We Recognize Victory When We Get there?

Raise your hand if you think the replacement of Gen. Stanley Allen McChrystal with Gen. David Howell Petraeus will bring victory in Afghanistan. And if you’re that lone person raising your hand, what would that victory look like?

Generals can win wars, or at least change the dynamics, no question about that. General Curtis Emerson LeMay had the drive and brilliance to design the bombing of Nazi Germany during World War II, the cold resolve to launch fire-bombing runs on Japan (which by the way may have killed half a million people), and then had a nifty way to win the war in Vietnam – use tactical nuclear weapons, or, if not, “bomb them back into the Stone Age.”

Military leaders may always have a plan and an answer, but civilian power should balance that with wisdom, analysis and a concept of what morality will bear. World War II was a moment in history in which the extremes of cruelty could be tolerated for victory. Never again.

President Obama had a royal opportunity when he took office to look at potential endgames for the debacle in Iraq and Afghanistan created by the fools and ideologues that preceded him. He assigned General Petraeus to the task of creating a new pragmatic policy for Afghanistan and Petraeus came back with a game board designed by some of the finest military minds of America.

The strategy – go after Al Qaeda at all costs, cut off and decimate the Taliban (once deceiving yourself into seeing them as a unified force), strengthen civilian control in Afghanistan, train the Afghan army and police to wage war on their own, build civilian infrastructure along the way – and get out of town by 2012, if not earlier.

It was never going to happen, it isn’t happening and it won’t happen; and even if those adherents of Curtis LeMay’s thinking keep up the Stone Age bombings forever, will we recognize victory when it happens? Afghanistan wasn’t going to bow to West Point, to a Princeton-educated warrior-intellectual, as Petraeus has been marketed, nor to American political self-deception.

No, President Obama was boxed in by a policy that was designed to make him seem sufficiently realistic and hardened to be the commander-in-chief, and while propping up various fictions, including the folly of Hamid Karzai as the legitimate leader of Afghanistan, and pretending that there would be a victory.

There is little realism to be found in U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The warring sides, the efforts to buy off enough warlords to build a temporary alliance, the scatter-shot attempts at civilian governance, all of it has the look of American self-deception. All along, the only hope for American victory would be a public relations coup – the singular act of bringing back the lifeless body of Osama bin Laden on a slab, followed by can-do American pronouncements and leaving the majority of Afghanistan’s 27 million people in miserable abandonment.

The answer has always been elsewhere, massive long-term aid programs, education, and international diplomacy – even figuring out a way to bring Iran into the mix that would appeal to its own pragmatic sense of the future. So far, one always holds out the hope that somehow the Obama administration works on two levels, the rather slow-moving conservative politics of Washington on the surface, while astute can-do realists would be tapping every possible avenue beneath the radar to come up with the “intelligent” solution. Where are they?

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