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The key moment in Rolling Stone's McChrystal piece

Of all the names associated with the now-celebrated Rolling Stone article on Gen. Stanley McChrystal -- Obama, Biden, Jones, Eikenberry, Holbrooke -- the one that matters most is Hicks. He is Staff Sgt. Kennith Hicks, who, among other NCOs, confronted McChrystal over his policy to avoid, almost at all costs, inflicting causalities on the Afghan civilian population. The result was that more Americans were being killed and the war, in the view of the men fighting it, was being lost.

“Sir,” Hicks said to McChrystal at a combat outpost in Afghanistan, “some of the guys here, sir, think were losing, sir.”

Despite the triple sirs, it is to McChrystal’s credit that Hicks felt he could confront his commanding officer. And it is to Rolling Stone’s credit that it caught that moment. Much of the rest of the article, for all its explosive newsworthiness, consists of McChrystal and his uniformed disciples mouthing off. They have contempt for almost everyone, nothing but awe for their boss, and the sort of loose lips that used to sink ships but now only threaten careers. On paper, they appear nothing less than bratty.

But the issue raised by Hicks is what matters. Men are dying in Afghanistan, some because that is the inevitable consequence of any war, some because of the peculiar nature of this war. If the only way to win -- which is to say not lose -- is to risk American casualties to avoid civilian ones, than this war cannot be won at all. The enemy will move among the populace more or less at will, killing when it chooses and where it chooses, until futility gets expressed in countless memos to POTUS and the troops are summoned home.

Some things don’t work because they are unworkable. The reason the U.S. could not come up with a realistic winning strategy in Vietnam was because there wasn’t one. It was always possible to put a million men into that country, but domestic politics here would not permit it. It was always possible to bomb the little country back to the proverbial Stone Age, but our own age would not morally permit it. It was always possible to keep the war going and going and going -- but, in the end, everyone realized that what was remotely possible was not in any way tenable. Plans do not fight wars, people do.

All this applies to Afghanistan. Troops are being asked to risk their lives so the Obama administration can go through the motions. It will fight until it no longer feels it has to, and then it will bring the troops home. If American interests were truly at stake, it would wage unrestrained war -- kill the enemy and anyone that gets between us and the enemy. But we don’t do it, not because we can’t do – we’re pretty good at killing -- but because we know it won’t get us anywhere. McChrystal is right. Every civilian death produces a family of enemies -- six degrees of enmity.

Nowhere in the Rolling Stone piece does McChrystal challenge Obama on his policy or his strategy. Nowhere is he insubordinate. He is, everyone says, a marvelous military man (although, given his role in the cover-up of the friendly fire death of Cpl. Pat Tillman, the former NFL star, he is a bit of a liar, as well). But he has an impossible task: a war that cannot be won. If he doesn’t know it, then Staff Sgt. Kennith Hicks sure does.

By Richard Cohen  | June 23, 2010; 11:19 AM ET
Categories:  Cohen  | Tags:  Richard Cohen  
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Cohen never is so fatuous as when he writes on military matters.

Posted by: turningfool | June 23, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

The reality is that a military war without a war of ideas is only half a war. America does not and has not had a war of ideas in Afghanistan. Any hope of that was crushed nearly 3 years ago on August 14, 2007, when President Bush praised Pakistan President Musharraf for a peace jirga where Musharraf viewed the Taliban as a legitimate "part of Afghan society," and he sought Taliban members to enter mainstream politics. By September 29, 2007, Afghan President Karzai was offering Taliban members high offices in the Afghanistan government. Where were most Americans while all this was going on? Focused on Iraq.

But surrender in the war of ideas has been going on for 3 years. In May 2010, two weeks after the Taliban trained a terrorist to set off a car bomb in NYC, President Obama met with President Karzai at the White House and agreed to Karzai's calls to "reintegrate" members of the Taliban in the Afghanistan nation. Karzai has even talked about putting the Taliban in the military and police. The stipulation? Here's a laugh. The Taliban members have to say they renounce violence and support human rights. This is like believing members of the Ku Klux Klan who say the renounce violence and support black civil rights.

Two weeks after the May 2010 White House agreement to have Afghanistan President Karzai seek to negotiate with the Taliban - the Afghanistan parliament started calling for the murder of Afghanis who become Christians, and 1,000 marched in the streets calling for "punishment" for Christians.

Anyone who is worried about "losing" the war in Afghanistan is not paying attention. We lost the war that really matters - the war of credibility in what we believe - nearly 3 years ago. So why should our sons and daughters lives be on the line, billions of dollars spent, if we can't even set the expectations that the Afghanistan government and its people will reject religious supremacism? Especially when such religious supremacism is the very foundation of the Taliban's ideology - and of course Al-Qaeda's as well?

Posted by: responsiblepublic | June 23, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

Let's assume that General McChrystal is already aware of this analysis. That there are many ways to lose this war and few ways to win it. And those few ways to win are beginning to look like not lose right away.

This flap would certainly get him out of running a lossing effort. And it may even be his intention that with him gone, everybody has to come home sooner.

Or it's a case of a soldier who his whole career was mostly in special ops and the like. So when he got up to the upper rank, he relied way way too much on his civilain PR guy, who convinced him the Rolling Stone article would be a good thing.

And I bet he knows it's not easy on the troops who are on the edge. But he also knows one "Oops" gets a lot of notice by the Afghans, and cannot not be undone easily by innumerable "good" things which often get unnoticed.

Posted by: OldGeezer | June 23, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Wait a second, you are saying that because we are following the proper strategy, which means that we protect the population but place our troops at higher risk, we can't win? That is idiotic. The lessons from Vietnam were many. One of which is that without the population you can't win. Period. Inserting a million troops and killing anything that moves does not win a war, especially not one where the enemy is all about convincing any and all sympathetic observers that you are evil incarnate.

Whether or not you agree with this war, you ought to know something about the topic if you are going to write a column in a major newspaper. This column is drivel.

Posted by: JoelB8 | June 23, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

I agree that this was the most important part of the article. However, the General is the one who has set the rules of engagement. Nowhere in the article or anywhere else is there any reason to believe that these are not MaChrystal's rules of engagement.

Posted by: pjgalvin1 | June 23, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

WOW, great article! I disagree a bit that there was no insubordination, but you hit the nail on the head with the real importance of the article. Great job.

Posted by: mvpstudios | June 23, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

What, specifically, are the goals and outcomes that the USA expects to "win" the conflict in Afghanistan? It is impossible to achieve an objective if the objective is nebulous at best, as it seems this war is.

Posted by: lauriel5 | June 23, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

It's hard to keep all the BS straight. Obama, or as he's increasingly referred to, "GW Lite," can lie out of both sides of his mouth AND whistle at the same time! The General has a track record of cover-up and lying since way before the Tillman incident. The simple truth is as long as corporate profits in the munitions industry continue to soar, the war will continue.

Posted by: FrankMoss | June 23, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

I agree that unless we build pyramids of human skulls among Karzai's political opponents in Afghanistan, we will probably never have a centrally governed Afghanistan supportive of our interests in the region.

The only revelatory thing about this column is that you can say this as though this should be news. Kindly remember your statements here when Obama begins the withdrawal, and Diehl tells you to summon some fake outrage about those poor Afghans who were left defenseless, just when they were about to adopt the Bill of Rights.

Posted by: doubleplusgood | June 23, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Shame on Rolling Stone. Don't we have enough problems to deal with in this country.

Posted by: OCalphalady | June 23, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

I agree. The article should have included an acknowledgment that the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars, like all wars, stimulate a vital part of the US economy and that stopping them will increase unemployment, slow down R&D, and reduce jobs and profits among DOD contractors. This is the cynical side to the politics of national defense.

Posted by: loyalsyst | June 23, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

not surprised....McChrystal was selected by obama and someone else to throw under the bus because of obama's obama is confirming that Bush was right all along and is selecting David Petraeus who Bush used to lead the successful Iraq Surge. Biden and Obama are nothing but a matched set of Clowns.
maybe we can get some liberals to go to afghanistan and be used to set off IED's and save the dogs from having to sniff them out.

Posted by: JWx2 | June 23, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

For Cohen the key moment was the conversation with Hicks. For me, it was when McChrystal described a major part of the American campaign to pacify Afghanistan as a "bleeding ulcer." That is the same term that Napoleon used to describe the wars he fought in Spain and Portugal. He sent over 500,000 men into those two countries over eight or nine years and his armies still got their butts kicked badly by the British under Wellesley, the Portuguese, and the Spanish guerrilla forces. We haven't sent anywhere near that number into Afghanistan, but so far the result doesn't appear any different.

David McGee

Posted by: dhmcgee | June 23, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

Good riddance to McChrystal. I would also say good riddance to the purposeless 'war' in Afghanistan. If we were wise, we would join arms with the Israelis to confront Iran which poses a real threat to the United States and the Middle East.

Posted by: bloommarko4 | June 23, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

In this war, the populace has been made the enemy.

The majority of Afghans support and supported the Taliban government (just as we did to the tune of billions until we turned down their offer to give us bin Laden and al Qaeda in exchange for more aid in order to invade).

This is a war designed not to end. This is occupation and chaos in the name of regime change and the profit motive. Oil profits and defense industry profits.

Making a police action a military one added chaos. Trying to run a counter-insurgency operation to "turn" Taliban, while allowing the CIA to run a rogue counter-terrorism operation creating militarist Taliban by the killing of innocents creates nothing but an escalating cycle of violence against our soldiers who are "trying to work" with the populace. It is an impossible situation.

Please read the Powell Doctrine and his and the war departments "old" definition of war. It is not regime change or country building, it is a bridge to an end of hostilities and peace.

Mr. Cohen. You seem to have forgotten we were at peace with Afghanistan and Afghanistan was at war with no one before Bush/Halliburton invaded.

Posted by: wayoffbaseguy | June 23, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

We had the same problem in Vietnam, right? Troops having to fight with one hand tied behind their back.

It's hard to win a politically correct police action.

Posted by: John991 | June 23, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Again with the faulty logic that the local populace hates us if we kill civilians. If that were true the locals would hate the Taliban and al-Qaeda (sic) ten times more than they hate us because those outfits kill (at least) ten times more civilians that we do.
This of course isn't to say that we ought to damn-the-civilians-full-speed-ahead, but let's at least get rid of the cheap bromide that "every civilian we kill produces a family of enemies."

Posted by: ShovelPlease | June 23, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

The REAL crime in all of this, is that we had already won the war in Afghanistan. Twice. And we threw it away.

Once because the then ascendant GOP had no use for the Democratic notion of "nation building" after we helped send the Russians packing.

The second time in the folly of after conquering Afghanistan we went on a lark in Iraq.

We are a victim of our own history, and you know what they say about fools and history...

Someone has posted that the war in Afghanistan can only be won with ideas. That is true, but fundamentalism is always a hard demon to exorcise, and especially so at the point of a gun. But exorcising fundamentalism is the true enemy, one that the US, itself, all too often falls prey to.

As Bush learned to his dismay, "holy wars" are about a relevant in the 21st century as a knight's metal armor. You can not win a war when you are subverted by the same enemy.

Posted by: ethanquern | June 23, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

Have we forgotten the lesson we should have learned from the Soviet Union? They sent over 100,000 troops, 1,800 tanks, and thousands of aircraft into Afganistan. They controlled the major cities but could never get control of the other 80% of the country which was controlled by the Mujahideen.

No one in recorded history has ever controlled the Afghan countryside. These are tribal regions controlled by warlords. Doesn't anyone remember that at the end of the Soviet occupation there were over 4,000 Mujahideen bases spread throughout these tribal regions?

It is ridiculous to think that even with one million men we could control the entire country. There is no way that the Taliban or whatever the current name of the Mujahideen is will ever defeat the United Stated military. We will win every military engagement but in the end what do we win? Does victory insure peace? Not hardly.

Unrestrained war doesn't work. Ask the Soviets.

The truth of the matter is that a very different kind of warfare needs to be waged. A war that is waged on several fronts.

One is the traditional control of the cities and the building of Afghan security forces strong enough to maintain that control. I have my doubts that could ever be done.

The second is the "Hearts and Minds" campaign of building hospitals and schools and a better infrastructure for the overall population. This will cost billions of dollars, American dollars, that could only be offset by the recent discovery precious minerals in Afghanistan.

And the third is the one we truly do not have the stomach or political will to permit yet it may be the most important and that is the "Black Ops" war. Kill them in their sleep. Make it look like their own people killed each other. Create fear. The only way to defeat the insurgents is if the insurgents defeat themselves.

Why McChrystal allowed his and his staff's thoughts and feelings to be openly heard by of all things the "Rolling Stone" is beyond me. But in part it must come from the frustration of knowing that no matter what he does he can't ultimately "win".

There is no excuse for his behavior but the fact is that he and the men and women under his command feel this way.

Posted by: howudoin | June 23, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Back in 2001 it sounded like US strategy was to blow into whatever country was harboring al Qaida, bust some heads and then leave and let the local government and civilian populations pick up the pieces and take out their ire on the remaining terrorists. We should be 'taking names' in Yemen by now.

Posted by: SoCal | June 23, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

Sgt. Hicks doesn't have a problem with proper respect for the military chain of command. too bad his commanding officers did...they should all be canned.

Posted by: jdann740 | June 23, 2010 4:07 PM | Report abuse

General McChrystal dealt with the problem of political chains of command locked around him like Harrison Ford in the opening scenes of The Fugitive, with typical Army gallows humor.
Enforcing political restraints which prevent military victories over our enemies is an American tradition.
His only error was forgetting that the guy sitting in the corner for the last two months was not a Spec 4 clerk, but a reporter for Rolling Stone

Posted by: tbolling | June 23, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

wayoffbaseguy, there's oil in Afghanistan?

Posted by: awiseman1 | June 23, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

Last night, I read that comment, Mr. Cohen, and it struck me, as well.
I'm glad you made it plain by pointing it out for everyone to notice.
This is the result of diving into a "quagmire."
Let's see what General Petraeus can do on scene.
One thing about it; he won't flail around grousing about it to a few underlings like a high-school bully.
General Petraeus will be honest with the team and tell them the truth, I believe.

Posted by: Judy-in-TX | June 23, 2010 6:56 PM | Report abuse

Yes, sadly, Mr. Cohen is right.

President Obama did the right thing by changing generals.

Unfortunately, the thing he did wrong is much more significant: He did not change policies.

Posted by: WylieD | June 23, 2010 7:54 PM | Report abuse

While the Hicks comment is of key importance, Cohen and most others miss the real import. Hicks said the US can't win because, while he and his fellows can dish out death and destruction in large quantities, they can't take it themselves. When the US military is unwilling to undertake the personal sacrifice they demand of civilians, they certainly deserve to lose.

Posted by: rp1588 | June 24, 2010 1:28 AM | Report abuse

Cohen is a genius like "the war is lost" Harry Reid and VP Biden (divide instead of conquer) or Obama who voted against the surge and refused to condemn the General Betray us ad by Move On. And we can't forget Hillary who called Petraeous a liar.

Posted by: acahorvath | June 24, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

I think I may have agreed with Cohen maybe once or twice before. I totally agree with him on this. Nevertheless, McChrystal's outster may force a review of the ROEs. If they aren't changed to match an all out war winning strategy, then we are doomed to lose and should just declare victory and leave pursuant to the schedule announced by Mr. Obama.

Posted by: MIMI13 | June 24, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

Largely uncovered by the US media, based on population, Canadian troops are dying in Afganistan at a higher rate than those of other NATO participants. Most Canadians see the futility of NATO's efforts. Like those in the latter portion of the Viet Nahm war, rules of engagement that force our troops to be shot at and also clearly identify those responsible for the shooting before returning fire is in effect asking many of our troops to commit suicide. Canada will abandon the Afganistan "adventure" in 2011 - smart! The US should follow but not at a gradual pace but rather in mass. The trajedy will fall on Afgan women. If their freedom and equality is our goal, we should also attack Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Syria, most of Lebanon, Pakistan etc, etc, etc, and stiffen our own laws and their enforcement to stop abominations like honor killing.

Posted by: wgtatton | June 24, 2010 7:05 PM | Report abuse

Fight to win or get out. Giving one week warning that we will be searching this house or that one for insurgents is just plain stupid.

Posted by: GiveMeThat | June 24, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

Bush won Iraq, Obama lost Afganistan. All the excuses in the world will not change this fact.

Posted by: fadkub | June 24, 2010 7:52 PM | Report abuse

Obama has known since he took office that he intended not to win in Afghanistan. That is why he set an 18 month withdrawal date. It was a political calculation - he cinically called it the just war - as he let men die there for the duration until pullout.

Posted by: rodhug | June 24, 2010 9:13 PM | Report abuse

My son returned about 6 weeks ago from his deployment in Afghanistan. He was at the extreme front lines near Now Zad. What Staff Sgt. Kennith Hicks said, mirrors exactly what my son and the Marines he served with thought.

Our soldiers have been told they can't fight. The can't use deadly force on the enemy and to avoid engaging the enemy.

There is a great deal more that could be said, but the bottom line is, we need to leave...NOW.

Posted by: chairman3 | June 24, 2010 9:51 PM | Report abuse

Cohen gets it on this one!

Americans are dying because of political necessity for Obama.

Quick note to all who voted for Obama:


Posted by: TECWRITE | June 24, 2010 10:23 PM | Report abuse

Before addressing Afghanistan, I think it is necessary to correct the lesson you draw from Vietnam. When President Johnson escalated US involvement in Vietnam, the strategy adopted was attrition. This was based on the strategy we ended up with in Korea, where we held a defensive line until the Chinese got tired of fighting. Apparently, General Westmoreland expected a similar result in Vietnam - that eventually the communists would get tired of fighting and settle for a stalemate.

This strategy was actually partly successful - the Army learned how to fight the Viet Cong, and by 1967 the Viet Cong was clearly being defeated. The combination of effective military tactics with aggressive intelligence were wearing down the Viet Cong fighting strength. An increasingly competent South Vietnamese government, and brutal atrocities committed by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, were turning the South Vietnamese population away from the communists.

The North Vietnamese tried a gamble - they called all the strength of the insurgent Viet Cong to attack throughout South Vietnam in the January 1968 Tet Offensive, in which all Viet Cong units, and most of the North Vietnamese Army units, were destroyed. After this, there was no insurgency in Vietnam.

Fighting with the North Vietnamese Army continued for five more years, with less and less US involvement, and a strategy of protecting the population. When the Paris treaty was signed in early 1973, US ground combat forces had been almost completely withdrawn from South Vietnam. When the North Vietnamese Army invaded the south in the spring of 1973, they were stopped and decisively defeated by a combination of South Vietnamese Army and (mainly) US air power. The US had committed to supplying South Vietnam with weapons, ammunition and supplies, and to providing air support in the event of invasion by the North. However, the Democratic Congress prohibited any further aid to South Vietnam in 1974. When the North invaded again in 1975, the South, without air support, supplies, or ammunition, was defeated.

There is good reason to think that, if the US had followed through with its commitments, the South could have defeated this invasion as well. It is simply not true that there was no realistic winning strategy in Vietnam - we had arguably won in 1973.

As you say, this applies to Afghanistan. First, we must identify and understand the enemy we are fighting. If we want to win, we need to provide the people of Afghanistan with a better alternative than the Taliban. This shouldn't be hard - the Taliban have little real support, due to their brutality, corruption, and oppression. If the Afghans can provide a competent government, and win the loyalty of the population, the Taliban won't be able to operate an insurgency.

Based on what I've read, it doesn't look like we're close to having a competent, trustworthy Afghan government, but this has to be the key to a winning strategy.

Posted by: CTObserver | June 24, 2010 10:38 PM | Report abuse

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