Advice for Obama and Us

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Reading through the depressing news coming out of Afghanistan, and still digesting President Obama’s Tuesday night speech at West Point, I realized that I needed some expert help in making sense of it all. So I pulled out my ouija board and summoned up the ghost of the greatest military analyst and theoretician of all time, Carl Von Clausewitz. The famous Prussian died in 1831, but even today, his book, Vom Kriege (On War), is on the reading list of every military academy in the world. Why? Because the key concepts of strategy are timeless, and nobody put them down on paper better than Clausewitz.

Peering into the misty darkness, I heard a smart click of heels, and then… there he was. What do you say to a famous ghost? I started to tell him how much I enjoyed his book. He bowed politely, but, with typical Teutonic directness, said, “Mein Herr, please get right to the Punkt. How may I help you?”

OK, I asked: What do you make of the war in Afghanistan? What do you make of the president?
“I have been following the news with interest,” he told me. “What a Zugwrack, oops, I mean, train wreck! Recent events illustrate some of my concepts, such as ‘friction’ and ‘the fog of war.’” He paused, then delivered his punchline: “And that’s just in your capital of Washington DC!” Who says Germans don’t have a sense of humor?

Continuing, he said, “As your Washington Post reported on Sunday, it has taken 94 days for your president to announce a decision on Afghan war policy; that is, more than three months, from the date of General McChrystal’s report, back on August 30, to the speech Tuesday night. By contrast, it took George W. Bush just 35 days to announce his new plan for a “surge” in Iraq; that is, from the Baker-Hamilton Report, issued on December 6, 2006, to Bush’s ‘New Way Forward’ speech, announcing the surge, which was delivered on January 10, 2007.”

So I guess that makes Bush look good, I ventured.

“It makes Bush look decisive by comparison, that’s for sure. But what really matters,” Clausewitz continued, “is persistent and sustained clarity on the objective of the war. And that’s a matter of politics.”


“Ja, Politik. Perhaps my most famous phrase is that ‘War is simply politics by other means.’ By that I meant, all war is a subset of politics. War can never be considered in isolation from its political purpose.”

It does seem strange, I ventured, that Obama is announcing the expansion of a war just days before he travels to Oslo to collect his Nobel Peace Prize.

A trace of a grim smile crossed Clausewitz’s face, “History is a feast of irony. In Valhalla, we have fun watching mortals criss-cross themselves in their own contradictions. In our time on earth, we did it, too, but now we have the perspective of eternity.”

And so I asked him: Back to politics: What do you think is the purpose of the Afghan war?
“The purpose of any war is to change the behavior of the enemy. War is, at bottom, a duel--a test of wills. That is, if you can’t destroy the enemy in toto, to the last man and boy, you have to convince the survivors to not only down their arms, but to think different thoughts about the future. They have to shift their thinking from war to peace. Otherwise, you haven’t achieved your purpose; you haven’t convinced the enemy to stop fighting. You haven’t won.

“In Afghanistan, you started out, eight years ago, to destroy Al Qaeda. You did that within a matter of weeks, back in 2001. But then you Americans developed a different concept, which was to establish a stable government in that country, even as Al Qaeda reconstituted itself in a different country, Pakistan. To use another one of my phrases, ‘the center of gravity’ of the conflict changed, from Afghanistan to Pakistan, even as you remained focused on Afghanistan. For political reasons, you couldn’t seek to eliminate Al Qaeda in Pakistan--a reminder, again, that war exists within the boundaries of politics.”

I could tell that he had thought about this; they must have good access to the news in Valhalla.  “So you settled for aerial bombardment of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, which has been effective in killing a few leaders--but never the top leaders, such as Usama Bin Laden--and yet has riled up the population in ways that have destabilized both the Pakistan government and also the Afghan government.

“And then, of course, in 2003, you Americans changed the center of gravity of the conflict altogether, from ‘AfPak’ to Iraq. You can’t win anything if you don’t focus on it. So in the last eight years, while your enemy shifted from Afghanistan to Pakistan, your attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq. You had a bad case of ‘fog of war,‘ and consequently a loss of strategic momentum.”

OK, I said, but what do you think is happening now?

“Obama seems to be even more confused than Bush. Obama does not have a political outcome in mind for Afghanistan. The politics he seems to see are back in America--keeping his own left wing happy, while satisfying enough of the middle to win re-election. And that domestic focus jas caused blindness on the battlefront. He fired his first general, David McKiernan, and then he seemed surprised by the advice he got from the new general he himself picked, Stanley McChrystal--that is, to send more troops to Afghanistan. So he spent three months dithering, trying to figure out how to do ‘counter-terrorism,’ but not ‘counter-insurgency.’ Such attempted hairsplitting plays poorly in the international arena.

“Meanwhile, all the signals coming out of the administration seem to be that this surge will precede an eventual withdrawal. For months I’ve been seeing background discussion about “exit strategies” of various kinds. And more recently, such talk has come out into the open. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on November 12, “We have been there for eight years, and we're not going to be there forever.” And then he added, speaking of new American forces, “It’s important to fully examine not just how we're going to get folks in but how we're going to get folks out.”

“And on ‘Meet the Press’ on November 15, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, ‘We’re not interested in staying in Afghanistan. We’re not interested in any long-term presence there.’”
Clausewitz paused for effect, before he started up again. “But the enemy is interested in staying there, there in Afghanistan--that’s where they live! That’s the territory they wish to hold! And so if they stay, still full of fight, and go, they win. Your Senator John McCain ‘nailed it,’ as you say,  just a few days later: ‘History shows us that if you set dates for when you're going to leave, the enemy waits until you leave.’”

But, I noted, McCain got clobbered during the 2008 presidential campaign when he said that the U.S. should stay in Iraq for 100 years.

“Ah, yes,” Clausewitz answered, “perhaps the domestic politics of such a statement were negative--there’s much to be said for, uh, circumspection--but McCain got the strategic politics exactly right. You communicate to the enemy that you will stay and fight as long as he will, so that the enemy sees no advantage in waiting you out.

“Instead, what message do you think Obama has sent to the Afghans and Pakistanis? They can see that the president is irresolute. They can see that the United States is not in this war for the long term. Will Americans be fighting in Afghanistan in ten years? Of course not.”

And so that tells the Afghans… what? I was afraid I already knew the answer. “It tells the Afghans,” Clausewitz answered, “friend and foe, that America has more reach than grasp. It tells them that you are not the ‘strong horse’ in the region, as Bin Laden declared years ago. So the power arrangements that endure in Afghanistan will not be the ones brokered by the Americans, they will be brokered by the Afghans.”

But what if we win the battles over the next year or so, I asked weakly. Won’t that make a difference?

Clausewitz just smiled at me. “Who are you fighting in Afghanistan? Who you are fighting for? You don’t even know any more.”

Clausewitz could see my face fall.

“Look,” he continued, “an American officer, Col. Harry Summers, who had fought in your Vietnam war, had a meeting with a Vietnamese general after the fighting ended, and the North Vietnamese had swallowed up South Vietnam. The American said, ‘You never defeated us on the battlefield.’ To which the Vietnamese general answered, ‘That’s true, but irrelevant. You Americans won your battles and then left the country. We Vietnamese lost our battles, but we stayed in our country.’ The moral of that story is that he who survives and stands his ground--no matter how great the casualties-- is the one who wins in the end.”

So what should we Americans do?

“Well, for one thing, if you’re going to fight these wars, you should fight them to win--not just militarily, but also politically. Indeed, you must realize that the political framework, including international public opinion, is more important than anything else. Otherwise, perhaps you shouldn’t be fighting.”

That seemed like good advice. Anything else?

“My time is running short,” he said. “I have an appointment soon in Tehran, and then an appointment in Moscow, and then one in Beijing. One nice thing about being a ghost, I can go anywhere, and visit anyone. So my last words of advice to you are, ‘Read the book!’ After all, I dealt with these issues almost two centuries ago. And as someone else said, if you don’t learn from mistakes made by others, you will inevitably make them yourself. Now I really must go--Auf Wiedersehen.”

And with that Clausewitz was gone, leaving me alone in the gloom.