Saturday, June 13, 2009

Sergeant Fury Goes Bananastan

Tom Shanker and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times tell us that General Stan McChrystal has been given “carte blanche to handpick a dream team of subordinates, including many Special Operations veterans, as he moves to carry out an ambitious new strategy that envisions stepped-up attacks on Taliban fighters and narcotics networks.”

The “ambitious new strategy” they’re referring to is the one that National Security Adviser James Jones and his White House war wonks trotted out in March. It’s a compost heap of aphoristic piffle about how we’re going to disrupt terror networks, and establish stable democratic governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and how we’ll get people all over the world to join hands on a love train “to actively assist in addressing these objectives.”

The strategy discusses “breaking the link between narcotics and the insurgency,” and proposes “crop substitution and alternative livelihood programs,” and focusing on “high level drug lords,” measures that have worked so well in South and Central America that illegal drug trafficking in the U.S. has all but disappeared. If we were serious about rubbing out the narcotics industry in the Bananastans we’d firebomb all the poppy fields, but we won’t do that. It might work, and then how would Stan the Man explain that after going through all the trouble of eliminating narcotics in the Bananastans we still have an insurgency there.

The new strategy—the one that Shanker and Schmitt label “President Obama’s new strategy”—talks about the Taliban, but it doesn’t discuss visions of “stepped-up attacks” on them. In fact, from the sound of his testimony to Congress, McChrystal plans to take the opposite approach. “The measure of effectiveness will not be enemy killed,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence.” McChrystal also told the SASC that the Bananastan war is “winnable,” but he failed to mention how many shielded Afghans would constitute “winning.”

According to Shanker and Schmitt, the SASC’s approval of McChrystal’s appointment only came after Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, went to the floor to make an “impassioned plea” for “Republicans to allow the action to proceed.” “Republicans,” in this case, consisted of John McCain, who Pat Tillman’s mother accused of “playing dumb” about the cover up surrounding the circumstances her son’s death. But according to J. Taylor Rushing of The Hill, McCain supported McChrystal’s appointment. So what gives?

According to the Times story, Reid got a phone call from Joint Chiefs chairman Mike Mullen, who told Reid “that there was a sense of urgency that General McChrystal be able to go to Afghanistan that very night.” Mullen reportedly told Reid that “McChrystal is literally waiting by an airplane” to fly to Afghanistan. The source of this information, as you might have guessed, was Harry Reid. Shanker and Schmitt put the waiting-by-an-airplane remark in quotations. That’s the first time I’ve noticed the New York Times make a direct quote from hearsay. I’m sure they’ve done it before.

The story contains another dicey Mullen quote: “Admiral Mullen said that he personally told General McChrystal that ‘he could have his pick from the Joint Staff. His job, the mission he’s going to command, is that important. Afghanistan is the main effort right now.’” I can’t tell for the life of me if Mullen actually said that to one of the Times reporters or if they got it from “Almost a dozen senior military officers” who “provided details about General McChrystal’s plans in interviews after his nomination.”

According to Shanker and Schmitt, these almost dozen officers “insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the effort, and insisted that their comments not be used until the Senate vote, so as not to preempt lawmakers.” I’m still trying to figure out why, if their comments couldn’t be revealed until after the Senate vote, their names couldn’t be revealed either. I’m also wondering how many senior military officers “almost a dozen” comprise. Three? One?

However many or few senior military officers it took to plant this story in the New York Times, the message got through. McChrystal “has been given carte blanche to handpick a dream team of subordinates” including many anonymous “Special Operations veterans.” It will take a metric ton of research to discover when “Special Operations” became a proper noun. Maybe it happened in early 2007 when Tom Ricks gushed suds over how many one-armed pushups General David Petraeus could do.

Whatever the case, special operations has become to the new American century of war what airpower was to the old American century of war: a panacea that promises to reduce the horror of armed conflict to a tightly focused contest played out by living, breathing comic book characters against minions of evil, a struggle that the rest of us can more or less forget about because superheroes are taking care of it for us. Barack Obama named McChrystal to take over the Bananastan debacle, the Times collapsed on itself to make the general look like a two-eyed version of Nick Fury, Agent of Shield. An “ascetic,” they called him, “who is known for operating on a few hours’ sleep,” and who “usually eats just one meal a day, in the evening, to avoid sluggishness.” That story came from Elizabeth Bumiller and Mark Mazetti. Liz and Mark didn’t mention how many dozens of senior military officers told them that, nor did they postulate on how seldom McChrystal goes to the bathroom. How many dozens of permanent latrine orderlies would have to spill the beans on that score before the Times would publish such a figure?

As best I can discern, zero senior latrine orderlies told Shanker and Schmitt about the “corps of 400 officers” who will ably assist McChrystal in doing that voodoo that he apparently does do so well when he finally gets on that airplane he’s been standing next to for what, days by now, and soars off to his next tour of duty to unleash that “ambitious new strategy.”

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword. Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books), a lampoon on America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now.


  1. The thought of Stan the Man (AfghaniStan? BananaStan? - ohmygawd, that was truly awful) standing by a plane for days not eating, not sleeping, not excreting, had me crying into my coffee. If I choke, it's all your fault.

    Most of our news seems to be coming from unnamed sources these days. Whether they don't exist or are afraid for their lives is something we'll probably never know.

    "Almost a dozen" is certainly a waffle phrase, I agree. That could be eleven for a conventional dozen, twelve for a baker's dozen, or nine for a metric dozen (I'm being facetious). But why the "dozen"? Does having a defined group make it all sound more substantial, like buns on a tray or doughnuts?

    By the way - "...compost heap of aphoristic piffle"? Superb.

  2. Jeff,

    It is true that Stan the Man has been given "carte blanche" in putting together a new command staff (yet another staff for Afghanistan).

    That said, just like every other RFF that will be filled out by IAs, the services will fill the jobs as they see fit.

    And they are not adverse to calling on passed over O-5s, who they never cared about before, to answer the call to the colors. As in, decide right this minute. As in volunteer- or non-volunteer. I know this for a fact.

    In short, General Stan is going forward to "fix" Afghanistan and "get it done." And Admiral Mike is going to give him whatever he wants.

    Too bad that nothing General Stan can do will change the fundamental reality that Afghanistan is not a real country, cannot become one and that any efforts we make to turn it into one will only result in the loss of more blood and much much more treasure.


  3. Jeff, Sgt. Fury was a hero to me. I slept better knowing he was keeping the baddies away.

    That was of course when I was a child.

  4. Anonymous12:38 AM

    God save us from the squad leaders.
    Obama isn't the first president to become infatuated with the riders of the short bus.

  5. More aphoristic piffle from McChrystal for you, Jeff.

    This was from a BBC interview on Friday.

    "Asked if it would be a long-term operation in Afghanistan, Gen McChrystal said: 'It will go on until we achieve the kind of progress we want to achieve.'"

    "It won't be short."

    Here's a link to the compost pile.

    Halfway down the page is a link to the audio, about four minutes, of the strategy in the Man's own words.

    Reminds me of a Bill Cosby thing on a pre-game conversation with a quarterback about his strategy, something to the effect of "...we're gonna win because we wanna win...and we wanna win."

  6. Sorry I got so far behind on the blog correspondence, gang. Thanks, as always, to all of your for the reads and comments.


    Many thanks for the piffle link. Just what I needed to put the icing on the Art of War for Dummies piece.


  7. Mr. Huber,
    Sir, I have been reading your articles at various sites for some time. You are truly one of the best I have found regards the military and the idiot wars of choice we are stuck in today.
    That is quite a compliment coming to an old Navy guy from a former Marine/Vietnam vet.
    You always give the straight dope on things and most always inject a good bit of humor into it as well. Not only do I learn from your work, I get a good laugh most times.
    Keep up your excellent work sir.
    semper fi,
    charlie ehlen
    Glenmora, LA

  8. Charlie,

    It was so nice of you to drop by and leave the kinds words.


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