Gareth Porter, independent historian and journalist for Inter Press Service, discusses how Gen. David Petraeus’s political skills and reputation could enable a compromise settlement in Afghanistan, speculation that Gen. Stanley McChrystal got fired on purpose, the August deadline for significant US troop reduction in Iraq and why even war boosters aren’t talking about victory in Afghanistan anymore.
MP3 here. (18:33)
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 interviews Gareth Porter June 29, 2010
Scott Horton: All right, y’all, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio. I’m Scott Horton, and I’ve got Gareth Porter on the phone. He’s an independent historian and journalist, writes for Inter Press Service, and we feature just about every bit of it at original.antiwar.com/porter, and, well, first of all, Gareth, welcome back to the show.
Gareth Porter: Hello again, Scott.
Horton: And it looks like you have one here at ForeignPolicy.com, “Why Petraeus Won’t Salvage This War.” And that’s our footnote for the day, for starters anyway, and there are a lot of footnotes hyperlinked inside the article, of course, as well. But I want to start with something that I don’t think you address in here, but it’s been on a lot of people’s mind, and I know it’s been on your mind, the idea that this guy McChrystal is too smart by half, obviously, and that he knew good and well that when he spilled his guts to Michael Hastings that he was going to get himself in trouble and that’s why he did it, because, you know, I guess, simplest explanation: Afghanistan’s falling apart and he would prefer it happen on someone else’s watch. That way he can say, “Gee, if only I’d been there, it would have worked out.”
Porter: Well, you know, I can’t completely dismiss that idea at all, and I haven’t looked into it as deeply as I would like to. But one thing that struck me is that some of the juiciest quotes in that article are taking place in Paris at a NATO meeting. And that actually goes back to mid April, which, from my understanding of the sequence of events, is a bit early for McChrystal to have reached the point where he saw that it was completely a lost cause. I have a feeling that that may have happened much later, that is to say May and early June, rather than in April. So that’s just a caveat that I have about the thesis. I don’t dismiss it yet, I’m interested in it, but I am sort of curious about the timing of some of the juicy quotes there that would suggest to me that they were still in a mode that was not yet desperate, as they I think would become later on.
Horton: Well, what was it, was there something particularly that happened in May, like they looked at Marja and said, “Geez, we can’t even take a town that’s half the size we said it was.”
Porter: Well, you have basically the whole story of Kandahar becoming so much more serious, much more basically a problem that they couldn’t solve. They basically realized, I think, in May and June, that they could not basically get the government, both local and national, to go along with a major troop increment in Kandahar, and that’s what they were still expecting by early May. They were still planning to do that in early May. And I think that that was really the straw that broke the camel’s back. I think that it was the realization that they could not carry out the offensive that they had planned at Kandahar, that really taught McChrystal that he could not deliver on what he had promised. And so by the end of that I would be prepared to say, yes indeed, that he was ready to find a way out, because it was truly a desperate situation for him.
Horton: So, this is the kind of thing he would have done, except that the timing just doesn’t seem to fit.
Porter: Well, at least, you know, all I’m saying is that the quotes that have gotten some of the biggest play did take place pretty early for this thesis to be most persuasive, that’s all.
Horton: Yeah. Well, and in fact the article itself doesn’t portray him as – I mean Hastings quotes him talking about Marja being a bleeding ulcer and all that, but he and his crew don’t sound all that hopeless in the actual article.
Porter: Well that’s what’s interesting to me, in part, is that what you don’t find in the article is an admission of any sort by the McChrystal inner circle, or certainly by McChrystal himself, that this is indeed a desperate situation, that they were really taken aback by a whole series of developments, particularly of course the inability to mount the offensive in Kandahar. That would have, to me, made it certainly much more persuasive that he was indeed looking for a way out by sort of taking the soft route out, if you will, of sort of going down in flames, making comments that he should have known certainly would have raised the specter of being fired.
Horton: All right, now, to this piece in Foreign Policy, “Why Petraeus Won’t Salvage This War,” we’re featuring of course in the Viewpoint section today on Antiwar.com, and is it fair to say that this article revolves around the piece in the Independent on Sunday, the London Independent, talked about McChrystal’s last classified assessment of the war?
Porter: Well I think that’s one piece of it. What that means is that Petraeus knows already, as he goes into this confirmation hearing today, that there isn’t going to be any progress in the next six months, that’s what McChrystal was saying in his last assessment, classified assessment. He knows that he really can’t deliver on any promise to make progress in those six months, and that suggests to me that he is well aware that he either has to find a way to finesse this similarly to the way he finessed the, or planned to finesse the Iraq war, by basically saying that he’s going to report back to the president whether the strategy can work or not, or is working, I should say, is working or not, within a matter of some months, and if it isn’t working, he will say so, and will call for withdrawal. Now he has not said that, apparently, in his confirmation hearing thus far. He has been hewing to a line that tries to suggest that, you know, we’re still going to follow the basic lines of the strategy.
But I know for a fact that Petraeus is telling folks that he is inviting to come onto his staff in Afghanistan that the first order of business will be a complete review and reappraisal of the strategy, knowing that they cannot deliver on what the McChrystal, and one could say very well the McChrystal-Petraeus, strategy that was adopted late last year has promised. So I think that, although he’s publicly continuing to emphasize or implying certainly continuity of strategy, I think that in fact he is planning to make a major overhaul and that as part of that, at least privately, I think that he is going to be saying to the White House, “We’re going to have to give this a period of time and then reevaluate it at the end of the year.” And of course there is already this formal evaluation or reevaluation that’s scheduled for December. I think that Petraeus is going to take advantage of that, assuming, as I believe is certainly going to be the case, that he is going to find that the strategy is not working, that he will report that to the president and make recommendations or allow the president to take the heat, perhaps, but certainly go on record as saying that this can’t continue. And I’m basing that again on the historical record, which is not well known, because it’s never been published, that in fact he told his staff in Iraq, in Baghdad, in early 2007, that we will give this strategy, the new strategy, the counterinsurgency strategy, six months, see if it works; if it’s not working when I have to give my first congressional testimony in September of 2007, I will say that it’s not working and we will have to recommend that we’ll have to leave.
Horton: Okay, well, you know, obviously he’s a self-interested guy. If the war is completely unwinnable, he doesn’t want to be the guy who completely unwon it, and I guess he would rather, I could see the argument that he would rather cut and run toward the beginning, try to make a deal and get out of there, than fight on and on and then still lose, just for his own political ambitions later or his place in history or whatever like that. But you know I’m still kind of conflicted about this Iraq example. Because after all, Gareth, I mean, he failed in Iraq and then he still said we won anyway, when all he did was kind of bribe everybody to put off killing each other until he could get out of the place.
Porter: Well, of course. That’s exactly what he did. He claimed credit for things that he had no control over which happened, which allowed him to push forward that narrative. I agree. What I think is clear, however, in the case of Afghanistan, is that there is no such break that he’s going to get.
Horton: Right. All right, hang tight, everybody. Gareth Porter. We’ll be right back.
Horton: All right, y’all, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio, I’m Scott Horton, and I’m on the phone with the great Gareth Porter, and he’s making the case that due to his own self-interested avarice, Gen. Petraeus might end up covering, with his heroic credibility as the heroic victor of Iraq, an exit from Afghanistan. Now, here’s my problem with that, Gareth. It seems to me like the neocons wanted Iraq really bad. Some of the guys in the military industrial complex, Lockheed and them, they really wanted to push this Iraq thing. But you always have the Zbigniew Brzezinskis and the CNAS crowd, for that matter. You read the Wall Street Journal, it says it’s all Rockefeller money created that thing, and these are the cruise missile liberals, as Jeremy Scahill calls them, the sort of centrist old foreign policy establishment, not as crazy as the crazies, but, you know, maybe the loonies that preceded the crazies, and they call this whole area “the arc of crisis.” They want the Caspian Basin. They want to keep China out of those minerals in Afghanistan. This is the consensus in New York and D.C. is that, “Eh, screw Iraq, but we’re staying in Central Asia,” right?
Porter: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there’s no doubt in my mind that Petraeus is committed to the broader strategy of maximizing the U.S. military presence in that whole area in the arc of crisis just as much as anybody else. So I just don’t think that that necessitates, from his point of view, necessarily, the effort to accomplish what may not be accomplishable in Afghanistan. Now, I’m not suggesting that he’s going to publicly declare today or next week that if this isn’t working we’re going to have to get out. I think that there’s undoubtedly going to be some variance on this basic theme of an exit strategy, particularly when he has a president who is already known to favor a negotiated settlement. I think that he may view that as part of the exit strategy and that it will not be, sort of saying that we’re going to unilaterally withdraw. I think he’s going to say that we have to reduce our expectations about what we can accomplish and that we’re going to have to turn over responsibility to the Afghan government, and I think he’ll try to mesh that idea with what Obama wants to do, which is to withdraw, particularly if possible more rapidly under a negotiated settlement.
So I mean that leaves a lot of murky questions unanswered. But, I would emphasize the most important thing about this issue right now to understand is the radical disconnect between what someone like Petraeus says publicly and what he says privately. We know from Tom Ricks’ book, The Gamble, that Petraeus told him that he regards it as part of the commander’s job to be publicly optimistic, and so I expect him to portray the situation in less than the dire terms that then what one would use if one were being honest. But I think privately he is saying something very, very different at this point, and will be doing so with his staff when he gets there, and I think that the policy that he is going to be basing his command on is going to take that into account. You know, so I can’t really predict exactly how he’s going to play this. You know, part of it undoubtedly will be trying to put the best face on it, no question about that, he’s going to use the idea of information warfare to his best advantage, but in the end he is far more realistic than he’s going to let on publicly.
Horton: Well, this guy Obama apparently has no principles whatsoever, and even if for his own self-interested avarice reasons, he wants to get out of there, or claim progress on getting out of there by the time he’s running for reelection in 2012 or whatever, he’d just as easy turn around and say, “Yep, we’ve got to make the COIN work. If it’s going to take 20 years, it’s going to take 20 years. If you don’t like it, blame George Bush.” But otherwise, as you and Kelley Vlahos were both saying on the show last week, the whole CNAS crowd and their allies in the Republican party are prepared to say that, “Ah, the Democrats are spineless wimps, they’re peaceniks,” that’s their constant line. And the only thing that the Democrats can do, including the president, is kill more people to prove how tough they are.
Porter: Well, you know, I’m very sympathetic with that line of analysis for sure. The one thing that it doesn’t take into account, however, is that there are realities on the ground that limit the ability and the freedom of people like the CNAS crowd, and indeed, someone like Petraeus himself, to pursue the kind of ambitions beyond U.S. borders that they prefer. I mean there are things that they can do. They can continue to maintain military bases throughout the region, I mean, particularly in central Asia, you know. They can continue to send Special Operations forces into many, many countries and make trouble. But in terms of maintaining a major military presence in Afghanistan for many, many years, that’s more difficult, because of the cost and because of the inability to make the case that you’re succeeding. In other words, the Afghans, the Taliban insurgency, has a veto over the ambition that the United States military wants to pursue.
Horton: And as Jeff Huber was saying in his article on Antiwar.com today, nobody talks about victory in Afghanistan anymore at all, Petraeus or Obama or McChrystal or any of these guys. Pretty much everybody is conceding that the Taliban controls most of the country and are going to over the long term. That’s what Anand Gopal was saying on the show yesterday – hey, America leaves now or 20 years from now, it’s going to be the Pashtun tribesmen and whoever they can get to be their political representatives, who are going to control Kabul, who are going to control that country.
Porter: Right. And that’s why I still insist that whether it’s McChrystal or Petraeus, you know, the military command in Afghanistan and the Obama administration face a what I call the “Iraq 2006 moment” in the coming months. They have to face the fact that this war has gone off the tracks, the wheels have gone off the car, so to speak. And that they’re going to have to make some major, major readjustments to cope with that situation. And so that’s really the bottom line as far as I’m concerned.
Horton: All right, now, I need the shortest answer possible about this. August is coming up. Are we going to be down to 50,000 troops in Iraq, never mind counting the mercenaries?
Porter: There will be, I don’t know, I can’t give you an exact figure, but all I know is that there’s still going to be tens of thousands of combat troops in Iraq, contrary to what the administration will say.
Horton: Right. Do you think the number will be anywhere near the 50,000 they promised, even if they just rename combat troops everything else in the world?
Porter: It could be roughly that figure.
Horton: Because that was the deal. That’s why I asked.
Porter: Yep. Yep.
Horton: All right, we’re all out of time. Thanks very much for your interest again, Gareth.
Porter: All right, thank you.