Scott Horton Interviews Gareth Porter
Gareth Porter, independent historian and journalist for Inter Press Service, discusses Afghanistan policy with Gen. David Petraeus in charge, how the military has achieved ideological hegemony in the US, Obama’s window of opportunity to deflect blame for failure in Afghanistan and why Petraeus was close to declaring defeat in Iraq before his 2007 testimony to Congress.
MP3 here. (18:07)
Gareth Porter is an independent historian and journalist. He is the author of Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam. His articles appear on Counterpunch, Huffington Post, Inter Press Service News Agency and Antiwar.com.
Scott Horton: All right, y’all, welcome to the show. This is Antiwar Radio. I’m your host, Scott Horton. … We’re going to start now with my friend and my favorite reporter, Gareth Porter. He writes for Interpress Service, that’s IPSNews.net, and we republish every bit of it at Antiwar.com – original.antiwar.com/porter. Welcome back to the show, Gareth, how’s it going?
Gareth Porter: It’s going well, thanks, Scott. Thanks for having me back again.
Horton: Well I appreciate you joining us here. So, your new article says, “Switch to Petraeus Betrays Afghan Policy Crisis.” I guess everybody knows that Michael Hastings, friend of the show, published a piece in the Rolling Stone that led to the firing/resignation – I’m not sure exactly how they technically pulled it off, I guess obviously Obama asked for his resignation. And then General Petraeus, the commander of CENTCOM, which I think is all the land between Morocco and India, was demoted back down to the level of combatant commander in charge of the one war in Afghanistan. You take it from there.
Porter: Well, this is of course a huge development in the history of this war and of US policy, because of Petraeus’s prestige and the history of having salvaged the Iraq War, in a political sense at the very least, in 2007-2008. And so what we have here is a kind of, on the surface at least, a repeat of what happened in the Bush administration when you had a war that was suffering from political meltdown, that is, the meltdown of political support among the political elite and the national security elite, Petraeus sort of came in and seemed to walk on water as far as the national news media were concerned. Now, I think that what’s happening in this case is, despite the superficial appearance of similarity, you’re going to have a very different narrative emerging from this situation in Afghanistan. I mean, that’s my prediction, based on work that I’ve been doing on Petraeus and his command in Iraq, the fact that he came into Iraq –
Let me just begin with what I think is a signal fact about Petraeus that very few people know. When he agreed to take the command in Iraq in late 2006, he had no intention of going down in flames, or going down with the ship perhaps is a better way to put it, in Iraq, and he was very skeptical that this could work, that he could succeed even with 30,000 more troops in quelling the violence between Sunni and Shia, as well as taking control over both the Sunni and Shia insurgency, which was a pretty tall order, let’s face it. He gave the chances of success as considerably less than 50%, I can tell you, based on what people who worked closely with him have said. And he told his staff when he assembled them in early 2007 in Baghdad that should this not work, the only option would be to go to Congress and say it’s not working, we’re going to have to withdraw. So, the point about Petraeus that people need to understand is that he is, first of all, a political operator who is thinking about his own future more than anything else, before anything else. And when he –
Horton: Well, he wants to be the president.
Porter: Well, I don’t know if he wants to be president or not, that’s possible. I have some doubts about that, but who knows, I mean, what his view of the future is. But in any case, he clearly wants to be seen as the top dog in the military and he is at this moment atop the military hierarchy in terms of political prestige and power and he intends to enhance that by going into Afghanistan. And there’s no doubt in my mind that he expects that he’s going to have to make some adjustments in the policy. He’s going to have to work with Obama to adjust the expectations of what can be accomplished militarily in Afghanistan as part of this deal. That’s exactly what he did in Iraq, although people are not aware of that. So, the major theme that I want to lay out, and to do so even more clearly than I think I did in my article, is that there is a big, big gap between the public posture of the administration as well as Petraeus about Afghanistan and what their real thinking is and what their real plans are at this point.
Horton: So, what you’re telling me then is that when Obama says, listen, we’re getting rid of McChrystal, we are not changing the policy and that’s what putting Petraeus in charge here means and all that; when he says that, the real case is that Obama’s putting Petraeus in there because he thinks that if it comes down to it, Petraeus will be willing to tell the Congress, look, we got to get out of there, and it’s not because Obama says so, it’s because I say so.
Porter: I would say the answer is yes. Of course I think the wording is going to be very, very different, but in essence that is correct. In other words, he’s not going to be saying, you know, we’ve got to get out of here. He’s going to be putting it in terms of a set of concepts that will be much more acceptable to the public and to the military.
Horton: Right, like, we could do it, but it would take a million men and 40 years.
Porter: That’s right. I mean, it’s not feasible for the United States to prevail in Afghanistan in the sense of gaining control over the Taliban, and he knows it, even I think McChrystal in some sense knew that, but that’s not an acceptable message to lay out in the sharpest terms. What I think Petraeus is capable of doing is presenting it in a narrative that will be acceptable to the public.
Horton: Well, look, I mean, at least to my eyes he failed completely in Iraq. All he succeeded in doing was adding time to that “Washington clock” and saying, well we have to stay a little bit longer, and clearly he helped the majority win the civil war against the minority in Baghdad and, you know, let the Sons of Iraq, the Sunni leaders who’d been begging to just be allowed to patrol their own neighborhood for six years at that point, he finally said, okay, fine, stop fighting us, we’ll let you patrol your own neighborhood. They’re all getting stabbed in the back right now. I just read a piece about it last night, how the Sons of Iraq are caught between the suicide bombers and the Iranians and they – well, what they call the Iranians, meaning the Shiite majority – and you know Petraeus’s promise that, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you, and we’ll make sure that Maliki allows you all a real place inside the Army and inside the government” and whatever, is obviously not true. They haven’t resolved the status of Kirkuk. They held an election, what, 2½ months ago, and it’s going to be another 2½ months before anybody figures out who the prime minister’s going to be over there. Iraq is a mess. There are bombs everywhere all the time. Americans are still going out on search and destroy missions. The only thing that’s really changed is the civil war part, and – the major part of the civil war and the news coverage ended. And now every single article about General Petraeus says, well, sailing on his wonderful victory in Iraq that I guess we just all know exists, right, they never have to prove this assertion at all, just refer to the slogan “The surge worked,” and because Petraeus was so successful in Iraq, he’s going to be our guy in Afghanistan now.
Porter: Well there are two levels on which I’d like to address that. The broader level–
Horton: Well you’re going to get one before the bumper music starts playing.
Porter: Okay. The broader, the more important level is, this is a perfect example of what Gramsci called “ideological hegemony,” which the US military has achieved in spades in this country.
Horton: Yeah, absolutely. In other words, military intelligence defines the terms of the debate and everybody stays within those lines. Chomsky’s “propaganda model,” only even more militarist than before.
Porter: But I want to say something more specific about that when we come back.
Horton: Okay, great. Everybody, it’s Dr. Gareth Porter, original.antiwar.com/porter. We’ll be right back on Antiwar Radio after this.
Horton: All right, y’all, welcome back to the show, Antiwar Radio, I’m your host, Scott Horton, and I’m talking with Gareth Porter, original.antiwar.com/porter. His most recent article is called “Switch to Petraeus Betrays Afghan Policy Crisis,” and when we went out to break I had set it up that at least in my view I think Petraeus failed in Iraq, all he succeeded in doing was getting you to memorize the slogan: “The surge worked.” And then Dr. Porter was going to comment on that when the bumper music started playing. Go ahead, Doc.
Porter: Yes, well the one thing I would say he succeeded in is essentially convincing or getting the Bush administration, essentially the White House, to go along with a policy in Iraq that was in fact much more accommodating to the forces that the United States had treated as enemies than the Bush administration had ever been willing to allow in the past.
Porter: There had been proposals coming from certain people in the military to make an accommodation with the Sunni insurgents in previous years, and the Bush White House said no. Because Bush I think was wedded to this narrative that the United States has got to defeat, to have a clear victory over the Sunni insurgents. That was what he had in his head.
Horton: Yeah, well, he wanted Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and his friends to rule the place.
Porter: Well, I don’t think he was so much pro-Shia as he was anti-Sunni. I mean, that was his particular hangup. But I think the point about Petraeus is that he was in a position of managing the White House. And I’ve actually heard people who worked for Petraeus put it in those terms, that he had to manage a president and a vice president, of course, even more so, who were much more hawkish about the use of military force than he was. And he was more realistic. And just to complete that thought, I mean, the thought that I began with. What people don’t know about Petraeus, in fact it’s never been published, is that two weeks before his key testimony to Congress in early September 2007, he and his staff were still trying to decide whether they were going to go to Congress and say, “This is not working, we have to get out,” or “This is working and we should continue on the same path.” And it was only in the final two weeks that they thought they’d come up with some statistics that they could put together to show progress, and in fact he went before Congress and said, yes, this is working, and the rest is history.
Horton: Well his major victory really was telling the troops, “Okay, just get back to your bases. No more IED lottery. You don’t have to drive around waiting to get blown up anymore.” And that was – I mean, hey, no more raids all day, no more insurgency.
Porter: Well, I mean that’s part of it, of course, but I think he just caught a lucky break, which you’ve alluded to, which was the decline of attacks within the capital, within Baghdad, which then allowed him to say that, you know, we’re on the right track. But I’m just pointing out that it was that close to Petraeus actually telling Congress and the American people that this is not working, we’re going to have to get out.
Horton: Now, I’m sure you probably saw this thing in the Washington Post saying that if we negotiate our way out of Afghanistan, it might look a lot like Lebanon. It might even be doable. I think he even says the name of this guy, I forget who it was that wrote it, it’s in the Washington Post though, that, “Eh, maybe we’ll even give the Taliban Kabul.”
Porter: Yeah, this is interesting. This is somebody from the US Institute of Peace, Daniel Serwer, who wrote this piece which is, you know, very sort of objective, nonideological, basically not taking any position one way or another about whether this is good or bad, but just saying this is what could be done. And, you know, this is in my view just one signal, one straw in the wind, about some of the thinking that’s going on in Washington. I’m not suggesting that there’s a straight line between that and President Obama by any means, just that this is one of the currents in play in Washington DC.
Horton: Well, I mean, because of the choice, because this is not Iraq, we’re not fighting for the majority, we’re fighting for the people who couldn’t possibly win on their own here and couldn’t possibly stand on their own here, and the, you know, all the attempts at creating an Afghanistan army the way that they did the Iraqi army have been even more of a failure, so the parallels to the Iraq so-called victory, for whatever it’s worth, pretty much all fall down. I guess the question is whether the counterinsurgency guys, who apparently have given up on their own idea anyway, are going to get a 20-year occupation and a trillion-dollar full-scale nation building, or whether, like we talked about, they’re actually going to just try to kill as many Taliban as they can and then go in a year. Except that the headline today is that last night Obama disavowed the July 2011 Afghan drawdown date. It’s the top of the page at Antiwar.com this minute.
Porter: Well, I think what’s going to happen is not, you know, it’s not that they’re going to get out fast, certainly they’re not going to get out fast before a negotiated settlement, and what I think Obama’s going to be looking for is to be in a position of telling the American people we are negotiating a way out, an exit strategy, so I think he wants to be able to be sitting down with or claiming to have somebody sitting down with or talking to the Taliban before he goes into the 2012 presidential election. I think that’s been his idea all along. This is going to take a while. I mean, you know, negotiations to end this kind of war are never going to be carried out fast. It’s going to take many, many months, and so it’s going to be a series of moves, as it was in Vietnam, I think that’s a reasonable model. You know, if you go back to the beginning of the Paris peace talks on Vietnam, it was 1968. That was five years. I’m not saying this is going to take five years, but it is going to take certainly more than 18 months for those negotiations to reach any completion, and you know, this is going to be a very, very tough, hard political conflict here at home over those negotiations, but that’s what we have to look forward to.
Horton: Well, you know, John McCain and the War Party in the Congress are always going to say, “If you leave, then Al Qaeda is going to come back from Pakistan into Afghanistan, and then from there we all know they can knock down our towers.”
Porter: But you know one of the good things is that once you agree that you have to negotiate and you’ve started the process, then the administration has an interest in telling the truth about that, which they don’t at this point. And the truth of course is that the Taliban has every reason to keep al Qaeda out, and they’ve already told us that they’re ready to negotiate, you know, legal guarantees, and that could be translated into even ways of having international inspections to ensure that al Qaeda doesn’t have any bases in Afghanistan. So, there’s plenty of ammunition that the administration can use to knock down that argument. They just don’t have any incentive at this point. I mean, I think they should, but they don’t see it that way, to really say what they could say about the issue.
Horton: Alright, so, you know, I’m not too good at all of this electoral politics stuff, because mostly I don’t care, but it seems like perhaps Obama’s doing the smart thing in putting Petraeus in charge of the war that he’s going to lose. That’s no way to become president, having been the general in charge of a lost war, right?
Porter: Well, I think there is something to that. I mean, you know, the first point about Obama and Petraeus is that Obama would rather have him close rather than farther away. I mean, there was talk about making him the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a second Obama administration, that would be one way of sort of keeping him under wraps, keeping him close by and within the administration. This might even be better.
Horton: Yeah. Well, we’ll have to wait and see how it plays out. Thanks very much for your insight, as always, Gareth.
Porter: My pleasure. Thanks, Scott.