Press Secretary Robert Gibbs caused a furor last week when he called out media talking heads as “professional leftists” suggesting they be “drug tested.” It’s unlikely that steroids are what Gibbs had in mind, but steroids have been the drug of choice for this administration when it comes to foreign policy.
Gibbs idea of drug testing may come in handy for another fellow whose latest proclamation that the war in Afghanistan is “fundamentally sound” can’t help but make one wonder if he, too, is partaking of the abundant poppies in Helmand Province. In an effort to win popular support for a military conflict that has lasted nearly a decade, General Petraeus, the leader of U.S. and Allied command in Afghanistan, has been making the rounds talking extensively to the New York Times, and on the Sunday morning TV talk show circuit.
Petraeus’s use of the phrase “fundamentally sound” resonates in the way a song does that one vaguely remembers, but can’t name. Wasn’t it then candidate John McCain who said that the U.S. economy is “fundamentally strong” in what would prove to be the last round of his presidential campaign? The urge to wonder if the strategy in Afghanistan would be drastically different had McCain won election in 2008 instead is inescapable.
Will the repetition of this key phrase, that begins with “fundamentally,” prove to be a harbinger of the end of another campaign, one that aims to prolong the illusion of imminent success in a war that boasts as its greatest achievement convincing Afghan President Karzai to help build an infrastructure of neighborhood watch groups?
More importantly, how much credibility does a commander have when he’s only been in charge of the operation for six weeks after relieving another commander who all but dismissed the war as mission impossible in a magazine that has as its major demographic many who Mr. Gibbs might describe as the “professional left?”
General Petraeus is widely considered the prime mover of counterinsurgency in Iraq which arguably led to the exit of combat forces, but the overriding question is who is this “resilient enemy” the general considers so difficult to defeat? And, how can anyone call a mission “sound” when it includes what the New York Times describes as a record spike in attacks on U.S. forces, the proliferation of regional violence, and a corrupt regime that has become even more deeply embedded in corruption?
Petraeus is just as clueless as McChrystal when it comes to how to defeat an insurgency that is more about resistance than an uprising. Surely this topic was on the table when Presidents Obama and Medvedev met in a White House tete a tete in June. It’s no secret in intelligence circles, as Noam Chomsky and others have intimated, that the enemy in Afghanistan is essentially comprised of the poppy farmers, the police force, and the vast majority of the people.
In his interview with the New York Times , Petraeus said he “didn’t sign up for a honeymoon,” but is he ready for a divorce or, to extend the metaphor, is his mission now as it was in Iraq to be the cheerleader for a failed marriage?
When he later appeared on “Meet the Press ” the general said he opposes what he calls a hasty pullout, believes success in Afghanistan is possible, and isn’t interested in what he calls a “graceful exit.” For anyone to suggest that a “graceful” anything is possible in the context of armed struggle evokes the desire for drug testing not to mention that the top commander in Afghanistan is dead set against withdrawal timetables, and is prepared to advise the president against a July, 2011 pullout. Where is Godot when we need him most?
Clearly, if he were presiding over a game of strip poker instead of military theatre, Petraeus would be the only one left in the room with clothes on.
And, consider this. As the Times also reports, Afghanistan is only the first stop in a covert “shadow war” being waged against al Qaeda in more than a dozen countries from North Africa to Pakistan, a war being fought with remote controlled drones, and good old fashioned espionage with a CIA that has White House clearance to engage in covert operations in which “virtually none of the newly aggressive steps undertaken by the U.S. government has been publicly acknowledged.”
No need for spinmeisters in Yemen or Somalia because no one really knows the extent of what’s going on there, and rest assured David Petraeus is in lockstep with any effort to keep the dark, dirty underside of war out of the press room.
This counterinsurgency jihad can boast of little more than the killing of several hundred insurgents, and greater preparedness for civilians to take over where military contractors like XE left off. Otherwise, there is lots of wiggle room, so much, in fact, that Petraeus could occupy a jumbo jet all by himself. But, then, maybe the reason they’re called “generals” is because they know best how not to be specific.
JAYNE LYN STAHL is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA.