Monday, September 28, 2009

The stab-in-the-back accusation, Afghanistan War version

The Democratic Party as a group is not yet ready to challenge the Cold War/Long War framing of American foreign policy. And the Republicans have no interest in doing so. There is a small dissenting faction of Old Right isolationists in the Republican Party. But they mainly function to reinforce the belligerent nationalism of the Cheneyists and the neocons. At least within the Democratic Party there is a visible antiwar faction with considerable influence.

After the two world wars, it's a sad state of affairs that both political parties aren't solidly antiwar in their general orientation. Instead, we have one Party with a substantial antiwar faction toward which the Party leadership is highly distrustful.

As a consequence, advocates of a chronically hawkish view based in a stab-in-the-back version of the "lessons of Vietnam" and a deep distrust toward civilian government are actually taken seriously. Far more seriously than a they would be in a healthy democracy. Here is a current example, from Gen. Mark Kimmitt (ret.) writing at Foreign Policy's AfPak blog, Losing the War of Exhaustion 09/21/09:

Over time, the U.S. military has evolved in its conviction that the center of gravity in counterinsurgency operations is protecting the local population rather than defeating the enemy forces. However, while protection of the Afghan people is necessary, it's not sufficient, for the true center of gravity for the Afghanistan enterprise is not in Kabul or Kandahar - it's the support of the domestic U.S. population that matters most. And, the Taliban intends to fight a war of exhaustion to defeat that support.
This is a reminder that foreign policy is way too important to be left to generals. Or to elected officials with their hands out to defense-industry lobbyists for campaign contributions and future lobbying jobs.


Mark Kimmitt served in Iraq with the US Army and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and as Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs for the last few months (Aug 2008-Jan 2009) of the Bush administration.

The notion that the military "center of gravity" in a war is the Will of the civilian population back home, and the civilian wusses in Congress, is a corruption the theory of war elaborated by the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831). Actually, calling it a "corruption" of Clausewitz' ideas is probably generous. Prostituting it would be a more apt description. Because the idea as Kimmitt elaborates it here is a cheap propaganda usage of a theory that Clausewitz used in describing battlefield strategy put in service of an open-ended excuse for military failure.

Generals don't have to overpromise. But it seems to be a chronic affliction for American generals. Sure, agree in the winter us a few more thousand troops and by summer we'll be implementing our whiz-bang new counterinsurgency theory and we'll be on the road to Glorious Victory in Afghanistan. Pakistan, too. Come summer and we've won victory after victory, mowing down terrorists and Al Qaidists and Talibaners by the dozens - with the occasional slaughter of noncombatants and gosh we're sorry about that - but, hey, we need more troops! Maybe hundreds of thousands of more troops. But we'll use them to implement our whiz-bang new counterinsurgency theory and we'll be on the road to Glorious Victory in Afghanistan. Reset. Repeat.

But, golly, our generals get their feelings hurt if anyone questions their competence, honesty or sanity in these things. So they have an all-purpose excuse. The American military is invincible and our generals certainly are. So if we're not winning a war - even though we're winning every battle for eight years straight! - it's not because our military or our fine generals have failed. Oh no, it's because the gutless public just isn't worthy of such a superb invincible military with such outstanding leadership.

That's really what defenders of military failure are saying when they trot out the all-purpose stab-in-the-back whine that Gen. Kemmitt uses in that post. And yes, it deserves to be both seriously refuted and ridiculed until our military culture develops a healthier respect for civilian authority and basic principles of Constitutional democracy. And maybe even gets to the point that it doesn't produce such whiners.

But the set-up for a stab-in-the-back version of the Afghanistan War is clear in Kimmitt's remarks:

If this war is to be won, it will certainly require more capability: more troops, more civilians, more funding, and a coherent strategy. For that, we can depend on the Department of Defense to find the troops, on the Department of State and other cabinet agencies to find the civilians, and on Congress to find the money.

But capability is insufficient. Achieving success in Afghanistan will also require domestic will, popular support, and strategic patience. These are the most important weapons in a war of exhaustion. Congress, DOD, and State can help out, but only the president can achieve a popular mandate for Afghanistan. Only the president can ask Americans to endure years of sacrifice. Only the president can build support for a protracted struggle that, in his words, is a "war of necessity." And, only the president can harness domestic will, popular support, and strategic patience -- the indispensible [sic] elements for success -- without which our efforts in Afghanistan cannot succeed.
Obama made a mistake in escalating the Afghanistan War as much as he already has. In doing so, he made it "his war" in a political sense.

And Obama's responsibility is real. But his real responsibility is very different than Kimmill's pitch to commit any amount of resources necessary to achieve some mythical total victory in Afghanistan.

There's a fundamental assumption in the open-ended stab-in-the-back excuse that it's illegitimate for the American public to take into account the costs and benefits to be expected from military action. Kimmitt's argument assumes that it's the public's duty to cheer for whatever the military is doing and wants to do. In the real world - and in the scheme of Constitutional democracy - it's the public's job to make sure that our government, including our invincible military and glorious generals, are acting responsibility and in the best interest of the American public and our national security. Sometimes that may mean fighting a war. Sometimes that may mean choosing not to fight a war. And it always means taking into account what's likely to be gained versus what is being lost and likely to be lost in the context of the unpredictable vagaries that come with all wars.

Kimmitt seems to be a true believer in the neocon view of The Terrorists as an existential threat to the US comparable to the nuclear-armed Soviet Union during the Cold War. See Terror War Strategy Goes Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan By Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service, DefenseLink.mil 11/29/05.

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