For a generation supposedly defined by the War on Terror, our generation’s response to military events now follows a very apathetic and predictable path. Severe skepticism or blind support marks its early stages, followed quickly by transient vicissitudes of euphoria and despair. No matter the route taken—yet particularly when some success is achieved—we inevitably arrive at a state of deep apathy. Of course, an economic crisis tends to cause a nation to turn inward, but long before our economic problems merited the term, Great Recession, Afghanistan and Iraq were, quite simply, no longer that big of a deal.
Therefore, it was no surprise when the far-reaching troop withdrawal in Iraq barely registered over America’s domestic political cacophony. Even worse, only the closest newsreader could have noticed last week’s firing of Major General Peter Fuller, the top US commander in Afghanistan, for his disparaging comments on Afghanistan President, Hamid Karzai. Fuller is no MacArthur, nor even quite a McChrystal, but his firing is still an event of significant importance. The response to these two events was unfortunate not only for its subdued nature, but also because both of these events were—to borrow a modern euphemism—“teachable moments.”
Let’s start off with Fuller. In an interview with Politico on Nov. 3, Fuller accused Afghanistan’s political leaders of being ungrateful for America’s investments, going so far as to say they were “isolated from reality.” Digging himself an even deeper hole, he suggested about Karzai, “when [Afghans] are going to have a presidential election, you hope they get a guy that’s more articulate in public.” One must wonder whether Fuller, after his firing two days later, could find any irony in his statement about Karzai.
Of course, Fuller only stated what everyone else already knows. Karzai and his fellow cronies have not been trustworthy allies. Military allegations of cooperation between our “allies” and enemies grow daily. The NATO partnership with the man was a marriage of convenience and, as we are only slowly realizing, divorces can be a tricky thing over there.
Most observers are finding it safe to conclude that the latest ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan was more of a dud than a success. Over the last ten years, expectations in Afghanistan have wavered significantly. However, since the disappointing results of the troop surge in Afghanistan and the symbolic death of Osama bin Laden, expectations rest at an all-time low. Once dreaming of a fully functional and tolerant pluralistic democracy, we are now, almost half a trillion dollars later, willing to settle for a façade of security and an iota of economic performance. We did not fail—see Russia’s earlier venture into Afghanistan for an example of a failure—but only a jingoistic fool would call our ten-year experiment an overall success.
That frustrating conclusion is what Fuller’s comments truly signified. Other generals, like Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti, who recently complained about the Pakistani Army’s aiding and protecting Afghan insurgents, are sharing their frustration with press. The military’s inability to achieve full success in Afghanistan may lead to a vexed insecurity, flashes of which are already beginning to show. That would help no one except America’s enemies.
Meanwhile, flashes of a different phenomenon are appearing in Iraq. A few weeks ago, the Obama Administration elected to withdraw all American soldiers by the end of this year, with the exception of 200 Marines to guard the U.S. embassy. In a great irony, acknowledged by few, Obama, to the approval of Democrats and criticism of many Republicans, simply followed the line-by-line of a 2008 agreement signed by the Bush Administration. Seventy five percent of war-fatigued America approved the decision despite statements by Iraqi military officials, like those made by Colonel Salam Khaled to the Washington Post: “Our forces are good, but not to a sufficient degree that allows them to face external and internal challenges alone.”
Despite the fact that the decision appears to have been largely out of Obama’s hands, much ink has been spilled on speculation of his possible motives in ending the war in such definitive fashion. With much less speculation, one can instead learn about today’s military and government by comparing the response to the close of the Iraq war with the 2007 “Surge.”
The only outspoken critics of the full withdrawal were politicians, most prominently Senators McCain and Lieberman, Representative Rubio, and, predictably, all the Republican presidential candidates. Whispers of Secretary of Defense Panetta’s dissatisfaction and murmurs of CIA Director Petraeus’ disapproval paradoxically grew softer through the outlining of the agreement. High-level active and retired generals were unusually quiet as well. Obama’s decision—or, rather, non-decision—was of equal, if not greater, magnitude than Bush’s decision to implement the “Surge.” Yet, the “Surge” was met with vociferous public disapproval and nearly non-stop editorials and television appearances of retired and active generals dismissing the military policy. In fact, both the head of U.S. Central Command at the time, John Abizaid, and America’s top military commander in Iraq at the time, George Casey, dismissed the plan.
Unfortunately, the magnitude of America’s military decisions is very rarely equivalent to the interest of Americans to those decisions. A democracy can only succeed militarily with a skeptical public and appropriately vocal military willing to approve successes and warn against mistakes. It seems that both groups were too tired when it mattered most.
Eric T. Justin ’13, a Crimson editorial executive, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.