Once installed in Kabul, the general surveyed the situation and, to no one's surprise, announced that "success demands a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign." Implementing that campaign would necessitate an Afghan "surge" mirroring the one that had seemingly turned Iraq around. In December 2009, albeit with little evident enthusiasm, President Barack Obama acceded to his commander's request (or ultimatum). The US troop commitment to Afghanistan rapidly increased.
Here things began to come undone. Progress toward reducing the insurgency or improving the capacity of Afghan security forces was—by even the most generous evaluation—negligible. McChrystal made promises—like meeting basic Afghan needs with "government in a box, ready to roll in"—that he proved utterly incapable of keeping. Relations with the government of President Hamid Karzai remained strained. Those with neighboring Pakistan, not good to begin with, only worsened. Both governments expressed deep resentment at what they viewed as high-handed American behavior that killed or maimed noncombatants with disturbing frequency.
To make matters worse, despite all the hype, McChrystal turned out to be miscast—manifestly the wrong guy for the job. Notably, he proved unable to grasp the need for projecting even some pretence of respect for the principle of civilian control back in Washington. By the summer of 2010, he was out—and Petraeus was back in.
In Washington (if not in Kabul), Petraeus's oversized reputation quelled the sense that with McChrystal's flame-out Afghanistan might be a lost cause. Surely, the most celebrated soldier of his generation would repeat his Iraq magic, affirming his own greatness and the continued viability of COIN.
Alas, this was not to be. Conditions in Afghanistan during Petraeus's tenure in command improved—if that's even the word—only modestly. The ongoing war met just about anyone's definition of a quagmire. With considerable understatement, a 2011 National Intelligence Estimate called it a "stalemate." Soon, talk of a "comprehensive counterinsurgency" faded. With the bar defining success slipping ever lower, passing off the fight to Afghan security forces and hightailing it for home became the publicly announced war aim.
That job remained unfinished when Petraeus himself headed for home, leaving the army to become CIA director. Although Petraeus was still held in high esteem, his departure from active duty left the cult of generalship looking more than a little the worse for wear. By the time General John Allen succeeded Petraeus—thereby became the eighth US officer appointed to preside over the ongoing Afghan War—no one believed that simply putting the right guy in charge was going to produce magic. On that inclusive note, round two of the WFKATGWOT ended.
The Vickers Era
Round 3: Assassination. Unlike Donald Rumsfeld or David Petraeus, Michael Vickers has not achieved celebrity status. Yet more than anyone else in or out of uniform, Vickers, who carries the title Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, deserves recognition as the emblematic figure of the WFKATGWOT's round three. His low-key, low-profile persona meshes perfectly with this latest evolution in the war's character. Few people outside of Washington know who he is, which is fitting indeed since he presides over a war that few people outside of Washington are paying much attention to any longer.
With the retirement of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Vickers is the senior remaining holdover from George W. Bush's Pentagon. His background is nothing if not eclectic. He previously served in US Army Special Forces and as a CIA operative. In that guise, he played a leading role in supporting the Afghan mujahedeen in their war against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s. Subsequently, he worked in a Washington think tank and earned a PhD in strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University (dissertation title: "The Structure of Military Revolutions").
Even during the Bush era, Vickers never subscribed to expectations that the United States could liberate or pacify the Islamic world. His preferred approach to the WFKATGWOT has been simplicity itself. "I just want to kill those guys," he says—"those guys" referring to members of al-Qaeda. Kill the people who want to kill Americans and don't stop until they are all dead: this defines the Vickers strategy, which over the course of the Obama presidency has supplanted COIN as the latest variant of US strategy.
The Vickers approach means acting aggressively to eliminate would-be killers wherever they might be found, employing whatever means are necessary. Vickers "tends to think like a gangster," one admirer comments. "He can understand trends then change the rules of the game so they are advantageous for your side."
Round three of the WFKATGWOT is all about bending, breaking, and reinventing rules in ways thought to be advantageous to the United States. Much as COIN supplanted "shock and awe," a broad-gauged program of targeted assassination has now displaced COIN as the prevailing expression of the American way of war.
The United States is finished with the business of sending large land armies to invade and occupy countries on the Eurasian mainland. Robert Gates, when still Secretary of Defense, made the definitive statement on that subject. The United States is now in the business of using missile-armed drones and special operations forces to eliminate anyone (not excluding US citizens) the president of the United States decides has become an intolerable annoyance. Under President Obama, such attacks have proliferated.
This is America's new MO. Paraphrasing a warning issued by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Washington Post dispatch succinctly summarized what it implied: "The United States reserved the right to attack anyone who it determined posed a direct threat to US national security, anywhere in the world."
Furthermore, acting on behalf of the United States, the president exercises this supposed right without warning, without regard to claims of national sovereignty, without Congressional authorization, and without consulting anyone other than Michael Vickers and a few other members of the national security apparatus. The role allotted to the American people is to applaud, if and when notified that a successful assassination has occurred. And applaud we do, for example, when a daring raid by members in SEAL Team Six secretly enter Pakistan to dispatch Osama bin Laden with two neatly placed kill shots. Vengeance long deferred making it unnecessary to consider what second-order political complications might ensue.
How round three will end is difficult to forecast. The best we can say is that it's unlikely to end anytime soon or particularly well. As Israel has discovered, once targeted assassination becomes your policy, the list of targets has a way of growing ever longer.
So what tentative judgments can we offer regarding the ongoing WFKATGWOT? Operationally, a war launched by the conventionally minded has progressively fallen under the purview of those who inhabit what Dick Cheney once called "the dark side," with implications that few seem willing to explore. Strategically, a war informed at the outset by utopian expectations continues today with no concretely stated expectations whatsoever, the forward momentum of events displacing serious consideration of purpose. Politically, a war that once occupied center stage in national politics has now slipped to the periphery, the American people moving on to other concerns and entertainments, with legal and moral questions raised by the war left dangling in midair.
Is this progress?
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author most recently of Washington Rules: The American Path to Permanent War and the editor of the new book The Short American Century: A Postmortem, just out from Harvard University Press. To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Bacevich discusses the changing face of the Gobal War on Terror, click here, or download it to your iPod here. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.