Revolution #206, July 4, 2010

Obama Dismisses McChrystal

The Firing of a War Criminal.... And the Criminal War in Afghanistan

Wednesday, June 23, President Obama held a press conference to announce what he had decided to do about Stanley McChrystal—the general in charge of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The day before, an article about McChrystal in Rolling Stone magazine (see box below) had hit the internet. And by the time the general was on a plane, summoned to Washington, people all over the world were reading how he had mocked and disrespected U.S. officials in charge of foreign policy and made comments challenging the president’s authority. This was a big deal. And airwaves quickly filled with speculation about what would happen next.

In an extraordinary move, Obama promptly fired McChrystal from command of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. But he made two things clear right away. One, that the U.S. appreciated the great service the general had made to America. And two, that this “is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy.”

The president said, “I relied on his service, particularly in helping to design and lead our new strategy in Afghanistan. So all Americans should be grateful for General McChrystal’s remarkable career in uniform.”

“But,” Obama went on to say, “war is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general, or a president. And as difficult as it is to lose General McChrystal, I believe that it is the right decision for our national security.”

U.S. politicians and the mainstream media mostly greeted Obama’s decision. And David Petraeus—the general who will now take charge in Afghanistan—is being praised as the right man for the job. He is credited with the successful “surge” in Iraq. He has served as commander of U.S. operations in the entire region and is seen as someone who can be counted on to lead the U.S. war for empire in Afghanistan.

Some commentators and analysts worry this change in leadership will interrupt the war. But the firing of McChrystal has NOT prompted public discussion by politicians or op-ed writers about the war crimes this general presided over (see box, “War Crimes… and the Promise of More”). Or WHY this war—now the longest in U.S. history (passing the Vietnam War)—continues to kill innocent civilians. Or WHY the U.S. is in fact widening, not winding down the war, including carrying out drone attacks in Pakistan.

The U.S. is fighting reactionary Islamic fundamentalist forces in Afghanistan who clearly don’t represent the interests of the masses. But between these two outmoded reactionary forces—the U.S. and Islamic fundamentalists—it is the U.S. by far that is the one doing the most harm not only in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but in the world as a whole.

This is a war to further and protect the interests of U.S. imperialism—not to liberate the Afghan people. This is a war for empire in which the U.S. has set out to dominate this strategically crucial region of the world with unchallenged military and political power. And with strategic goals in mind, U.S. occupation and intervention is digging in deep, pushing out and continuing to hold and expand military operations in countries throughout the region.

The War Is Not Going Well for the U.S.

Obama is being applauded for bringing in Petraeus and there is hope he will effectively take charge of the war in Afghanistan. But the U.S. is facing really BIG problems here.

The U.S. has been trying to reverse what McChrystal called “insurgent math”—where for every innocent person killed, 10 new enemies were created. The training of Afghan military and police was supposed to allow U.S. soldiers to withdraw. Obama’s surge of 30,000 more soldiers was supposed to make significant gains in wiping out the Taliban. July 2011 has been set for U.S. troops to begin withdrawing.

But all this has not been going well. The surge of more U.S. troops has resulted in a surge of problems. Mounting civilian casualties continue to fuel widespread hatred of the United States. Many of the Afghan soldiers and police trained by the U.S. are very unreliable. U.S. casualties have gone over 1,000. Hamid Karzai, the U.S.’s puppet president is widely discredited among the Afghan people. Two days after McChrystal’s ouster, Middle East expert Ahmed Rashid wrote in the Financial Times:

“[T]he US-NATO strategy in southern Afghanistan has barely made a dent in the Taliban’s resistance, which is spreading across the country. NATO’s offensive in Marjah, in Helmand, is five months old and still has not secured the area. The anticipated surge to secure Kandahar province has been postponed due to the Taliban’s penetration of the region. Seventy-nine NATO soldiers have been killed in June so far—the highest monthly figure since the war began.”

Continuing Counterinsurgency Strategy

It is a big deal when a U.S. president fires the general commanding a major war—and it is rarely done. Ironically, McChrystal was put in charge of the war in Afghanistan last May when Obama dismissed General David McKiernan. This shakeup signaled a major change in the adoption of a new counterinsurgency strategy (COIN).

Fighting by U.S. and NATO forces had relied heavily on the air force, high-tech weapons, heavy bombardment of villages and indiscriminate killing of civilians. Military analysts voiced concern—not over the immorality of killing—but over the fact that such atrocities were pushing people into the arms of the Taliban.

COIN is meant to address these problems. This strategy, modeled on the genocidal U.S. war in Vietnam, relies more on massive ground troops, in conjunction with air strikes. It involves taking and occupying large swaths of territory, killing insurgents, and then trying to form alliances with reactionary local forces in order to establish pro-U.S. governance. It aims to “win the hearts and minds” of civilians—hoping they will not aid, abet and join the forces fighting the United States. It is billed as a “kinder, gentler” occupation, but in reality it is no less brutal and murderous—and NOT in the interests of the people.

COIN is supposed to minimize civilian casualties. But in reality this has hardly been the case. In fact, in 2009, civilian casualties in Afghanistan climbed to their highest number since the start of the war. (UN Annual Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, 2009)

A basic contradiction here is that the U.S. military is an occupying army—its mission by definition is brutal and murderous and the more it bombs, murders, tortures, etc., the more it alienates the people. A central goal of the U.S. war in Afghanistan is subduing—by any means necessary—a population in which most don’t want to be under foreign domination. Thousands of people in Afghanistan have experienced the brutality and murder of the U.S. troops and they distrust if not hate the American occupiers and the Afghani flunkies the U.S. put in the government. Night raids, special operations, covert assassinations, extrajudicial killings, drone strikes, the use of military contractors, massive detentions and torture, and all-around terror are embedded in the nature of this imperialist occupation. And every U.S. bombing of a wedding, every massacre of civilians, only fuels anti-U.S. sentiment—no matter how hard the U.S. tries to “win hearts and minds” by building a few schools.

Problems Giving Rise to Divisions

These big problems and failures have given rise to major disagreement and in-fighting in the U.S. ruling class—even as they all agree that whatever is done should be guided by the strategic imperialist interests of the United States. Obama reiterated this in the press conference on McChrystal when he said: “Our politics often fuels conflict, but we have to renew our sense of common purpose.”

The next day, the AP report that went out all over the world said:

“America’s Afghan and international allies embraced the choice of Gen. David Petraeus to run the war in Afghanistan, hoping the architect of the Iraq surge will seamlessly pursue the strategy laid down by his predecessor and smooth over divisions that led to his dismissal. By naming Petraeus, President Barack Obama managed to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal without derailing the mission at a critical juncture in the war, when casualties are rising and public support in the West is waning. Still, the jury is out on whether the counterinsurgency strategy that Petraeus used to turn around the Iraq war will show results in Afghanistan by July 2011, when Obama wants to begin withdrawing U.S. troops. The split between the U.S. civilian and military team in Afghanistan has not disappeared with McChrystal’s departure. Those fissures, laid bare in disparaging remarks to Rolling Stone magazine, led to McChrystal’s dismissal Wednesday.”

Petraeus represents, as Obama has emphasized, continuity in the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. But there is also talk about the need to re-evaluate how well this is working. And in particular, there is a lot of debate over whether or not Obama’s July 2011 deadline for troop withdrawal is “unrealistic.” Obama himself is now saying this deadline is NOT about actually withdrawing troops—but when the U.S. will evaluate whether or not it can/should do this.

In his op-ed piece in the Financial Times, Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban, noted: “Since they were appointed, the senior officials who decide US policy in the region have been at loggerheads. The White House has failed to consult Richard Holbrooke, the state department’s special representative to the region. In Kabul, Gen McChrystal and retired General Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador, have at times barely been on speaking terms. In turn, Gen Eikenberry and Ann Patterson, the US ambassador to Pakistan, have had sharp differences with Mr Holbrooke.” (“It is time to rethink the west’s Afghan strategy,” Financial Times, June 24, 2010)

All of what is being fought out here in the ruling class is not completely clear. But the McChrystal incident revealed the tip of an iceberg.

McChrystal openly questioned the authority of the White House and expressed vulgar contempt for civilian authority. This is one reason Obama fired McChrystal—saying the General’s behavior “undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of a democratic system.” And note that Obama is saying this at a time when one way that deep divisions in the ruling class have expressed themselves is open rancor between powerful figures in the military and members of the Obama administration.

Different contradictions in the ruling class are intersecting with and building off each other. There are all the problems with the war in Afghanistan and the region as a whole. The different forces within the U.S. ruling class share common objectives when it comes to the need for U.S. imperialism to achieve unquestioned dominance in the world—militarily, politically and economically. But the problems in achieving these goals are mounting. And this is reflected in and giving rise to sharp differences in the ruling class over how to deal with these contradictions and how to advance the interests of U.S. imperialism.

At the same time, there are other divisions in the ruling class that have been sharpening over the last three or more decades. On the one hand, there are aggressive reactionary forces, including theocratic conservatives, who actually consider Obama unworthy of leading the country (perhaps even more unworthy than Bill Clinton, whom they impeached)—especially when it comes to matters of national security. One expression of this is the way in which Obama’s presidential authority, in particular his role as commander-in-chief, has been challenged. And there are other forces in the ruling class, largely associated with the Democratic party, who have big disagreements with these conservative forces and feel that Obama basically represents the right course for the country.

The “McChrystal incident” seems, in part, to reflect the intersection of both of these contradictions. While there has been a certain cohering in the wake of the firing of McChrystal and the appointment of Petraeus, the strategic problems and contradictions they face with their wars of aggression have not been resolved. There will no doubt be new twists and turns ahead.


The point for revolutionaries here in recognizing these contradictions and divisions in the ruling class is NOT to choose between two reactionary sides, which each represent the interests of U.S. imperialism. The U.S. war in Afghanistan—with all its horrors and atrocities—has become acceptable for far too many people. But this whole McChrystal affair has now created a certain moment where the U.S. war in Afghanistan has been thrust out in the public eye. And people need to seize this time to stand up and oppose these war criminals and this whole criminal war.

As Carl Dix said in a press statement released at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, “No matter who’s in command, no matter what the strategy, the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan is immoral, unjust, and illegitimate.” And NO side in the ruling class debate over how to wage this war is in the interests of the people. 

A statement recently published in the New York Review of Books titled “Crimes Are Crimes—No Matter Who Does Them”—scheduled to appear soon in Rolling Stone—argues that U.S. military killings of civilians in Afghanistan are outrages under President Obama’s command as they were under George Bush’s command: “Such measures by Bush were widely considered by liberals and progressives to be outrages and were roundly, and correctly, protested. But those acts which may have been construed (wishfully or not) as anomalies under the Bush regime, have now been consecrated into ‘standard operating procedure’ by Obama, who claims, as did Bush, executive privilege and state secrecy in defending the crime of aggressive war.” 

We need to build mass opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan—as part of building a movement for revolution. And the more U.S. imperialism faces big contradictions, problems, difficulties and divisions—the more the people need to be stepping up the struggle against this murderous system. 

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