Monday, December 14, 2009

A Game That's Not So Great

The New York Times


December 13, 2009

Op-Ed Columnist

A Game That’s Not So Great



Puppets just aren’t what they used to be.


Or maybe a trillion dollars doesn’t buy the same felicitous level of obsequiousness it once did.


Visiting Afghanistan and Iraq in an attempt to shore up our wobbly wards, Bob Gates could not seem to get the respect due the man running the world’s best military, a force that has been protecting and propping up our two occupied territories for most of this decade.


At a joint press conference Tuesday at the presidential palace in Kabul, Hamid Karzai surprised the usually unflappable Gates when he knocked down President Obama’s attempt to get out of Dodge.

Needling his American sugar daddy, the Afghan peacock observed: “For another 15 to 20 years, Afghanistan will not be able to sustain a force of that nature and capability with its own resources.”


Gates and Obama may have wanted to “light a fire,” as Gates put it, under the corrupt Afghan president and warn that the A.T.M. is closing, but Karzai called their bluff. He knows, as do the leaders in Iraq and Pakistan, that America is stuck bailing them out with billions every year, even when they dawdle, disappoint and deceive.

Gates and his generals in Afghanistan talked a lot last week about “partnering” with and “mentoring” the Afghan Army and police. But given the Flintstones nature of the country, it’s more basic.


Americans have to teach the vast majority of Afghan recruits to read and write before they can get to security training. It’s hard to arrest people if you can’t read them their rights and take names.

It seems late to realize this, but Gates told reporters he had only recently learned the “eye-opener” that the Taliban were able to attract so many fighters because they paid more. Generals in Afghanistan said the Taliban dole out $250 to $300 a month, while the Afghan Army paid about $120. So Gates has made sure that recruits get a raise to $240.


The American solution is always to throw more money at a problem; now we’re in a bidding war with the Taliban, which doesn’t bode well for the democracy manqué.


Gates promised that America would not leave until the Afghan and Iraqi forces stand up — even when he gets stood up, as he did by Nuri Kamal al-Maliki Thursday night.


The Iraqi prime minister blew off a planned meeting with Gates because he was in a scorching closed-door six-hour meeting with Iraqi lawmakers, being taken to task for his failure to stop five bombings that ripped into government buildings Tuesday, killing 127 people and wounding hundreds more.


The defense secretary’s aides tried to spin the snub, noting that their guy was merely an appointed official while Maliki was an elected leader. When the prime minister finally agreed to reschedule the meeting for 7:50 a.m. Friday, Gates’s aides gleefully noted that, given Maliki’s preference for sleeping late, it was a diplomatic triumph, even if the Iraqi had on pajamas under his suit.

After four days of preaching a message of love — Gates said it was “a myth” that America likes war and called it the first time in military history that an occupying force was in Afghanistan “on behalf of the Afghans rather than to conquer” — he finally got some back.

“You look very young — you look much older on TV,” Maj. Gen. Turhan Abdul Rahman, the leather-clad Kirkuk provincial director of police, told the manicured Gates.


If Rummy had been dissed by our inglorious glove puppets, he would have blown his top. But the disciplined, analytical, pragmatic, introverted Gates is no Rummy (nor does he call his predecessor). His form of ego is not to show ego. When a much-anticipated trip to see an Army Stryker brigade in Kandahar was canceled because of fog, he dryly told us: “As Clint Eastwood said, ‘A man’s got to know his limitations.’ ”


The Cold Warrior who helped persuade the Reluctant Warrior to do the Afghan surge has sometimes been on the wrong side of history — with the Soviet Union, the Iran-contra scandal and the 1989 desertion of Afghanistan.


But unlike Rummy, Cheney and Wolfie, he doesn’t seem driven to make up for past disappointments by manipulating present history. “Where I do think I bring something unusual is, I think I have uncommon common sense, whether it’s growing up in Kansas or just my life experience,” he told me, sitting in The Silver Bullet, a secure Airstream trailer on his C-17 that looks like a big toaster oven.


Asked about the Democratic lawmakers who felt the president had been rolled by the generals, Gates snapped: “That’s ridiculous.”

So how does Gates make a decision that will determine his reputation and that of the young president he serves?

“Anybody who reads history has to approach these things with some humility because you can’t know,” he said. “Nobody knows what the last chapter ever looks like.”



Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company


Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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