After all that has been said about Afghan President Hamid Karzai by U.S. military and civilian leaders, why did the Obama administration remove Major General Peter Fuller, deputy commander of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan?
Fuller, in an interview with Politico published on November 3, was highly critical of Karzai. He said, among other things, that he was upset with Karzai’s remark that Afghanistan would side with Pakistan in any war with the United States. He told Politico that Karzai was erratic, adding, “Why don’t you just poke me in the eye with a needle! You’ve got to be kidding me … I’m sorry, we just gave you $11.6 billion and now you’re telling me, ‘I don’t really care’?… When they are going to have a presidential election, you hope they get a guy that’s more articulate in public.”
Fuller also recounted a conversation with Afghan generals who quite apparently don’t understand that America’s financing of the war against the Taliban can’t go on forever: “I said, ‘You guys are isolated from reality.’ The reality is, the world economy is having some significant hiccups. The U.S. is in this [too],” Fuller told Politico, “If you’re in a very poor country like Afghanistan, you think that America has roads paved in gold, everybody lives in Hollywood. They don’t understand the sacrifices that America is making to provide for their security. And I think that’s part of my job to educate ’em.”
Fuller was fired days later. He was impolitic toward the Afghan generals and disrespectful of Karzai. But was this worthy of removal?
Consider what else U.S. generals and diplomats have said about Karzai and his government.
In Bob Woodward’s book, Obama’s Wars, he quotes a host of them.
Then overall Afghanistan force commander Gen. David Petraeus is quoted as telling Vice President Biden and then-Defense Secretary Gates, “We’re not going to defeat the Taliban,” and “I understand the government is a criminal syndicate.”
Retired Gen. Karl Eikenberry, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan (and a Petraeus rival), is quoted — from the same meeting — as telling Biden and Gates that we couldn’t make the troop surge work in a year because we don’t have a reliable partner in Karzai. Karzai, according to Eikenberry, is mercurial (a more polite word than erratic). “He’s on his meds, he’s off his meds,” Woodward quotes the ambassador as saying, referring to Karzai’s reported depression and medical aids.
Before Fuller, Obama fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal after an article in Rolling Stone proved too much for the president. But that was different. McChrystal wasn’t dismissive of Karzai, he was disrespectful of Biden, Eikenberry, Petraeus and other American leaders. It added up to a level of insubordination for which he had to be removed.
I will not defend Fuller. What he said weren’t things any American general should say publicly. But Fuller’s situation is different from McChrystal’s and troubling in a very different way.
What Fuller said in the conference reported by Politico could not have been spontaneous or original. He was saying things he would have certainly spoken about to his boss, Afghan Commander Gen. John Allen, as well as other peers as well as his staff. His comments, blunt but honest, reveal much about how our troops are thinking about the war they’re fighting.
There is a disease affecting our forces engaged in counterinsurgency — the military term for “nation-building — in Afghanistan. Call it “COIN fatigue.”
The symptoms of COIN fatigue are stress, doubt and anxiety. The stress and doubt result from the looming withdrawal and the knowledge that we have sacrificed much but achieved little. Anxiety is the necessary result of the first two.
However you compute its length — from 9/11 or back to the Iranian revolution of 1979 — the war in Afghanistan is part of the longest war in U.S. history. Some of our troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan nearly ten times in the ten years since 9/11. They go, willingly, and perform superbly. Their morale, to all outside measurements, is still very high. So why the COIN fatigue?
Americans had always fought for a clear purpose: to defeat a defined enemy and end the threat he posed to our way of life. But this war, and the way we have fought it, has never been clear. No one can get away with telling our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that victory is just over the next hill. They would have understood if they were told that we needed to remove Saddam and set up a provisional government in Iraq. They would have understood it if we’d said that if we got bin Laden and Mullah Omar, they could leave Afghanistan and go home. But that’s not what they were told.
They were told that we would leave Iraq stable, independent and an ally. That didn’t happen. They were told the same thing about Afghanistan and — looking around themselves — they know that won’t happen either.
Our troops aren’t stupid: they’re better, smarter and better-trained than ever before. What Fuller said must be a genuine reflection of the beliefs of the men he worked for, worked with and commanded. I remember a young army colonel telling me, six years ago in Baghdad, “If you want to break this army, break your promises to it.” And that’s the problem: too many promises, too many inconsistencies, and too little for the troops to look at and say, “We accomplished that.”
Which brings us back to Fuller’s words to the Afghan generals. He’s obviously frustrated by their lack of understanding of and apparent unconcern with America’s standpoint. He spoke as the man in charge of training their forces and seeing to it that those forces will be able to operate effectively and independently when we leave. Which they are, perforce, not going to be. And as clearly as Fuller saw it from his perch atop the training pyramid, we have to understand that — in the grunt’s eye view — things can only be worse.
There are only two cures for COIN fatigue: victory, or a long period of recovery after a retreat. As Petraeus said, we’re not going to defeat the Taliban.
The only historical comparison to Iraq/Afghanistan is Vietnam. Our forces had fought a counterinsurgency and a part-time war with the North though we never tried to topple the Hanoi regime. They felt the same sort of COIN fatigue that Fuller’s words exclaim.
It took thirty years for our military to recover from its Vietnam fatigue. But in those years we fought a Cold War, not a major hot one. This one won’t be close to over when we leave Afghanistan. How long will it take to recover this time?