This is What Success Looks Like

by Alexander Cockburn, August 26, 2010

The last American combat brigade in Iraq has left the country, so the Pentagon announced this week. The 40,000 personnel from 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division began crossing into Kuwait August 19. The US combat mission in Iraq — Operation Iraqi Freedom - is scheduled to end on August 31.

The least credible human in America is a president or a general guaranteeing imminent victory, plus with­drawal of troops from the quagmire of the day.

The rhetorical embroidery decorating this pledge changes little from decade to decade. In 1970, President Richard Nixon declared that the Vietnam War was pro­ceeding so auspiciously that he was planning to pull out 150,000 American troops. The South Vietnamese forces, he asserted, were now of sufficient military competence to carry the brunt of the fighting.

The truth was that the South Vietnamese forces were ill-trained, averse to battle and led by corrupt officers booking their flights to America. The war was lost, but it dragged on for another five years.

In Iraq in 2007, General Petraeus famously announced his "surge" strategy and confided to visiting journalists that the strategy was working well, with "astonishing signs of normalcy" in Baghdad. Monica Crowley of Fox News nominated Petraeus for the "most honest person of the year".

The truth was that in substantive terms, for reasons entirely unrelated to the fictive "surge", the Sunni had given up fighting the Americans. Baghdad was in ruins, the war, in terms of the objectives declared in 2003, was a disaster.

In 2008 Obama campaigned on pledges of with­drawal from Iraq and escalation in Afghanistan. At the start of this month, addressing cadets at West Point military academy on August 2, 2010, the president  said that the war in Iraq had been won: "This is what success looks like." Departing US troops will leave behind a "democratic" and "sovereign" Iraq, one that is now "no haven" for "the kind of violent extremists who attacked America on 9/11."

It's a bizarre definition of success. Furthermore the US State Department, also General Odierno and others, feels it necessary to emphasize that US involvement in Iraq is far from over.  More on that here next week.

What about Obama's pledge, when he was selling his Afghan surge last year,  that withdrawal there would begin in 2011? Here's where serious domestic politics — always the driver of foreign policy — takes over. The Democrats feel they cannot go into any election in either 2010 or 2012 and be accused of "losing" in Afghanistan. This, unlike Iraq, is Obama's war.

The Obama administration has said the US would begin to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. But last Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, Petraeus, now in command of US and coalition troops in Afghanistan, said the withdrawal date was "conditions-based" and that it was possible it could be pushed back further.

"Conditions-based," cynically but accurately defined, means what Obama can tout as "mission accomplished." That's a tough sell for the foreseeable future, since there's zero evidence that the US-led coalition is achieving anything that can be sold as "success" in Afghanistan.

But the Pentagon is trying to push "success" nonethe­less. In an interview last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said "everybody - all of our partner nations and I think everybody in this government - would agree that two things are central to success. One is building up the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which is going pretty well, and governance, which is going, but not as well. It's still moving in the right direction, but a lot slower than we would like."

No credible reporter would endorse Gates's opinion on the zeal and efficiency of the ANSF and every credi­ble reporter notes the utter corruption of "governance" in Afghanistan. In terms of domestic politics here in the Homeland, the US cannot quit — and will not do so by 2012 because there is zero evidence for any substantive achievement. Unlike Iraq, a victorious "surge" is not a saleable proposition as Petraeus acknowledges.

The Afghan war, launched covertly three decades ago, will be with us for at least two more years, and maybe several more , the need for protraction  buttressed by such shock tactics as the picture of an Afghan woman with her nose cut off by the Taliban, featured on the cover of Time recently. It was certainly a horrible piece of barbarism, inflicted because the woman had breached the Talibans’ concept of moral propriety.  The message was that with premature US withdrawal a lot more women’s noses will  be sliced off, or women lashed and then shot for imputed “adultery” years after their hus­bands had died. I did feel all the same that balance should have required Time also to feature bits of human flesh strewn around after a Predator missile had landed on yet another Afghan wedding party, an inevitable fea­ture of what happens so long as  the US stays.

The only reliable definition of “success” in any of the United States’ martial enterprises is the effective destruction in economic, social and environmental terms of the target country. That certainly happened in Iraq and is a process far advanced in Afghanistan.

The Extreme Action Hero

The best laid plans don’t always work out. In the won­derful slice of her book How to Become An Extreme Action Hero, featured last Friday on our site, Elizabeth Streb describes what happened…

“when my life partner, Laura Flanders, [AC: niece of yours truly] turned forty … I  wanted to give her a su­preme and symbolic gift. I conceived of a fire dance, a conceptual one. I named it ‘BlazeAway.’ It was per­formed to a Melissa Etheridge song with the lyric, ‘I’m the only one who’d walk across the fire for you.’

“A fire was lit as large as the square my hips outlined. The idea was to walk up to the fire along a narrow lane, just long enough so that by the time I got to the blaze it would be quite large. I crouched down and flew into the air, making a very large horizontal X with my body, arms, and legs, and landed dead center on the flame. It was supposed to go out. But when I looked under my stomach and stood up, I realized that I was on fire, fully ablaze…”

You can read the rest of the story on our website, CounterPunch.org. I strongly recommend Elizabeth’s book, decorated by a truthful blurb by Mikhail Baryshnikov, “Fearlessness and intelligence combined — that is what makes Elizabeth Streb’s work so potent and beautiful.” ¥¥

(Alexander Cockburn can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com.)

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