The Fog Rolls in for the Afghanistan Assessment

At the beginning of the Iraq “surge” in 2007, Senator Barack Obama was leery of General David Petraeus, but now, we learn, he has warmed to the four-star Pentagon celebrity and calls him “Dave.”

In meetings, according to an anonymous White House official, when the talk is of Afghanistan, Petraeus “always brings up Iraq” and the surge there, The New York Times reports.

By all accounts a very savvy politician always aware of his image, it is not strange that Petraeus would remind people of the thing he is most revered for, which is the so-called “surge” in Anbar Province of Iraq, the strategy that turned a hemorrhaging disaster into a stabilized, suppurating wound.

The Fog of War is Thickening in AfghanistanThe Fog of War is Thickening in Afghanistan

Now, he is doing the same thing in Afghanistan – except Afghanistan is politically and culturally about six centuries behind Iraq.

When US military counter-insurgency operations reach the latter stages and public questioning and opposition increase, the challenge is to get the “metrics” right – or as the Times recently put it, to develop “new and better ways to measure success or setbacks.”

In the 1980s, during the El Salvador counter-insurgency war, as paramilitary death-squads were literally littering the streets with bodies, the Reagan administration was required by Congress every six months to “certify” that progress was being made.

To no one’s surprise, it did exactly that. The challenge turned out to be easy. They didn’t have to show that things were rosy and life was secure; all they had to do was come up with some formulation to convince Congress things were improving in some small way.

One of the sad turns-of-event in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that Reagan’s small, murderous war in Central America against the poor is now used as a model of sorts for the hunter/killer teams so successfully employed as a “secret weapon” in the Iraq “surge.” Due to that success, they are now being used in beefed-up form in the Afghan “surge.” Defenders of the current wars even use the phrase “the Salvador model” to refer to our assassination strategy.

What made Lt. General Stanley McChrystal famous was his secret management of this “secret weapon,” the special operations hunter/killer teams that, like their more crude predecessor in Vietnam, the Phoenix Program, located and captured or killed people deemed leaders in the enemy camp, those people deemed “irreconcilable.”

The secret war and the PR war

As the Phoenix Program and the paramilitary death-squad program in El Salvador made clear – and as is the case in both Iraq and Afghanistan – public relations is one thing and the secret reality is another. When it comes to sending men out specifically to assassinate people, mistakes leading to the deaths of innocent civilians are common. Unless made public, the incidents are generally overlooked, or seen as acceptable, for operational reasons.

The case of Medal of Honor winner Senator Bob Kerrey is the perfect example. As a lieutenant, he led a mission to assassinate a Viet Cong leader that ended up killing a hut full of 14 women and kids. The story came out in 2001. Kerrey claims the killing was all done in confusion in the dark, while Vietnamese survivors claim it was done knowingly and systematically, possibly to prevent detection.

“You can never, can never get away from it,” Kerrey has said. “It darkens your day. I thought dying for your country was the worst thing that could happen to you, but I don’t think it is. I think killing for your country can be a lot worse.”

He was awarded a bronze star for the operation. The citation read: “The net result of his patrol was 21 Viet Cong killed, two hooches destroyed and two enemy weapons captured.”

So much for the fog of war.

Reporters like Bob Woodward, heavily embedded in the corridors of Washington power, have pointed out that buying off poor Anbar insurgents and McChrystal’s “secret weapon” assassination teams were the reasons the “surge” was successful in Iraq. It had nothing to do with an increase of troops. That was home front public relations – just like the “secret weapon” was only secret to the people in whose name it was being done.

You can see the Petraeus war machine and the Obama administration maneuvering themselves and their PR line for the much-touted December assessment of the war in Afghanistan.

General Petraeus is already on record down-playing it. “I would not want to overplay the significance of this review,” he told Congress in June.

Floated talk of “new and better ways to measure success” feels like a fog bank bringing in something similar to the six-month progress reports in El Salvador. The war may be a total disaster on all fronts, but, in the PR world of leveraging lowered expectations, progress is not so hard to show – especially when you consider the sharp critical edge of the United States Congress.

Countering the fog

To counter this fog, a very interesting report was just issued by a group calling themselves The Afghanistan Study Group. The report is called A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan. It should be widely distributed and read.

The 46 listed members of the Study Group run the gamut from think tank types to members of the corporate world, people from the Progressive Caucus Action Fund, the Cato Institute and the National War College. The project is self-described as a “serious ‘Team B’ policy effort.”

Both the study group and the report are far from your typical antiwar left approach, which makes it that much more credible in the mainstream. Of course, many of the ideas in the report have been staples in the antiwar left for years.

The study recommends things like continued surveillance of, and possible surgical attacks on, al Qaeda, in the event it makes a return to Afghanistan. It smartly encourages improved regional diplomacy.

What’s important, the study group recognizes how unpopular the war is becoming with ordinary Americans beleaguered by economic disaster at home and how much the war is not in the interests of America and Americans.

Specifically, the 12-page report says, “The Study Group recommends that President Obama firmly stick to his pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in the summer of 2011 – and earlier if possible.” In other words, cut through the fog and do whatever is necessary to get our troops out of Afghanistan sooner rather than later.

If following the wishes of a majority of Americans and bringing our military occupation of Afghanistan to a close somehow tarnishes General Petraeus’ image, that is a sacrifice our civilian commander-in-chief should ask him to make. He can retire and be honored to the hilt for his brilliant service.

“The economy is horrendous, and millions of American families are running out of ammunition in their fight against destitution,” writes New York Times’ columnist Bob Herbert,

It’s time to shift our tax resources from war and military overreach to the neglected needs of ordinary Americans.