The End of Stanley McChrystal’s War on Poverty

In the 2000s, neocons tried nation-building abroad while dismantling the nation at home. Trump is ending the former, but continuing the latter.

Before the current occupant of the White House decided to swear off “nation-building” in Afghanistan this week, he must have interrupted his viewings of Fox and Friends and Morning Joe long enough read a 2009 article in Dissent magazine, “Stanley McChrystal’s War on Poverty,” in which I explained why America wouldn’t be able to do for Kabul and Kandahar what it hadn’t been able to do for New Orleans and Detroit.

Although there have been some encouraging initiatives in the latter two cities in the eight years since Dissent posted its warning, that warning bears repeating now that so little has been achieved in Afghanistan. The hard truth is that neither more “boots on the ground” nor more “nation-building” will work there. The larger diplomatic, region-wide strategy that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sketched may hold some promise, but I can’t assess it here. First, we need to understand what’s gone wrong.

When General McChrystal announced his new counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan in 2009, overturning many of the doctrines the U.S. brought to Iraq in 2003 and expanding others developed after 2006, he was reviving a policy mindset that had faltered in Vietnam and even in Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in the United States.

McChrystal’s “interim assessment” for the White House and his “counterinsurgency guidance” for the troops in Afghanistan rejected “the conceit that an army can defeat an insurgency simply by killing insurgents,” as the conservative foreign-policy pundit Max Boot put it. Ironically, that had long been the conceit of law-and-order conservatives and “present danger” neocons, but by 2009, many of them, like McChrystal, had sidelined the “more troops” approach, but also the liberal “culture of poverty” that McChrystal believed had hobbled NATO’s disorganized efforts in Afghanistan.

Instead of continuing the policies of the militarist right and the social-welfare left, McChrystal proposed to expand the war in ways that would “embrace the people,” be “a positive force in the community,” and “use local economic initiatives” to displace the insurgency. With massive new resources, this new doctrine would integrate “military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency.”

But whose government? Hamid Karzai’s was corrupt as well as feckless. And even the United States Government, ever since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, had hastened a decades-long disintegration of “actions” such as McChrystal was now proposing for Afghanistan. Here at home, the disintegration of such actions had left New Orleans patrolled by Blackwater guards in a perfect storm of unchecked global warming, failed infrastructure, corrupt politics, laissez-faire economics, and social disarray. By 2009, it wasn’t easy to tell what model the NATO coalition could implement more successfully in Afghanistan.

Still, by the time that McChrystal put out his “interim assessment,” the glaring failure of militarized free-market fundamentalism to win hearts and minds, at home or abroad, had driven neoconservatives to praise the general’s proposed leap to social engineering with lavish subsidies for dubious characters posing as popular leaders. For decades, in publications such as Irving Kristol’s journal The Public Interest, conservatives had derided and de-funded such social-welfare strategies unless they could be billed as “national defense” initiatives like the U.S. Interstate Highway System and the first federal student loans (under the so-called “National Defense Education Act,” which had been passed thanks partly to Russia’s Sputnik successes.).

Small wonder, then, that conservatives who’d long scorned “nation-building,” “community organizing,” community policing, and public jobs at home rhapsodized them for Afghanistan in the name of national defense. Here was Boot, just back from a tour well-orchestrated by McChrystal:

Next to the combat outpost is a brand-new district center built with foreign aid money. Inside we sit down to chat with the district governor, Mohammed Yasin Lodin, a natty man with frizzy black hair and a thin mustache, and the police chief, Colonel Amanullah, who is (unusually for an Afghan) clean shaven. Yasin is overflowing with praise for the improvements wrought by the Americans.

The Americans later tell me that the governor… is doing a good job, spending far more time than he used to in the district (his family lives in Kabul) because it is now safe to do so… The Afghan soldiers and police also receive praise.

An equally credulous David Brooks touted an Afghan National Solidarity Project that helped “villages elect Community Development Councils. Western aid agencies give the councils up to $60,000 to do local projects, but it’s not the projects that matter most. It’s the creation of formal community structures. These projects are up and running in 23,000 villages.”

The results were “astonishing” and “surprising,” Boot enthused, and they were outpaced only by press releases and glowing reports that read like the publicity for American War on Poverty programs that Richard Nixon had disparaged for “throwing money at problems.” Boot’s and Brooks’ hosannas were the fruits of the “strategic communications” that McChrystal had deemed essential to “policy development, planning processes, and the execution of operations.”

These grand “strategic communicators” can’t have been happy with Henry Kissinger’s reminder, in his book World Order, that “[u]nification of Afghanistan has been achieved by foreigners only unintentionally, when the tribes and sects coalesce in opposition to an invader.” He even rubbed the point in by noting that what American and NATO forces have  encountered in Afghanistan is exactly what the neocons’ idol, Winston Churchill, described in 1897 as that country’s eternal division by tribes, clans, and feuds, puncturing facile expectations that the British would ever bring order to Afghanistan: “In this context,” Kissinger concludes, “the proclaimed coalition and UN goals of a transparent, democratic Afghanistan central government operating in a secure environment amounted to a radical reinvention of Afghan history.”

McChrystal also requested massive new resources to “fight corruption and improve the delivery of basic services such as clean water, paved roads, electricity, education, and a functioning legal system.” He wanted to raise Afghan government salaries because “the notoriously low wages…are a major inducement for corruption.”

War on Poverty strategists wanted all this, too. So did American local and state governments in 2009, as McChrystal was taking action and as their own communities were reeling from the Great Recession. McChrystal estimated that Afghanistan’s thirty million people would need 600,000 counterinsurgents. There were “only 270,000 (170,000 Afghans, 64,000 Americans, 35,000 from other nations),” but such things, Boot explained, were “too intricate to be reduced to such back-of-the-envelope calculations. Unique local characteristics have to be taken into account.”

I heard all that in Brooklyn in the 1960s. It certainly sounded dissonant coming from commentators who’d told Americans that we’d have to meet savagery with savagery in Afghanistan because, as Brooks put it in 2006, the terrorists “create an environment in which it is difficult to survive if you are decent.”

Suddenly, in 2009, Boot told Weekly Standard readers that McChrystal’s new counterinsurgency strategy meant that “the old tactic of going into an area, killing some insurgents, and leaving was about as effective as ‘mowing the lawn’….Even more important is to provide durable security and some prospect of a better life to the population.” And Brooks was enthusing that while in Iraq “the good guys had only vague ideas about how to win this war, now they’re much smarter.” So, apparently, were conservative pundits.

Certainly there are lessons in the failures of both the free-market militarist right and the social-welfare left. But the counterinsurgency plan in Afghanistan may have failed because President Obama, a former community organizer, understood better than McChrystal—who’d discovered “soft power” as a fellow at Harvard’s National Security Program in 1997—that lasting democratic solutions can’t be orchestrated or imposed by Central Command, Kennedy School power points, or even a top-down War on Poverty.

Still, the discovery that attacks on New York and Washington came from Afghanistan had renewed democracy promotion and nation-building as national defense priorities. It wasn’t enough to assume that if you removed tyranny by force, most people would choose democracy. “Freedom is not enough,” Lyndon Johnson had warned in his 1965 “War on Poverty” speech: “You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to…choose the leaders you please. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’….Ability is stretched or stunted by…. the poverty or the richness of your surroundings.”

That was too much for conservatives then; and it was too much for them in 2003, when they were busy reconstituting the Baghdad Stock Exchange and telling Iraqis, in effect, “Now you are free to…choose the leaders you please.” By 2009, the crisis in Afghanistan had brought them around to the recognition that removing Saddam and his cadres in Iraq and the Taliban from Tora Bora and Kabul did not promote democracy, let alone republican citizenship, in tribal societies that had never had it, don’t want it, and certainly won’t accept its being imposed from outside. “Free-market” strategies for nation-building and democracy promotion have proved so ineffective–for Kansas as well as Kabul—that Trump has gone back to just “mowing the lawn” abroad—and, very possibly, at home.

The War on Poverty’s architects discovered in the 1960s that the United States had its own corrupt warlords and predatory opportunists, the kind who turn real estate into unreal estate and who savage the American dream of homeownership while currying public assistance (corporate welfare in the form of dubious government contracts, tax subsidies, and lax safety and labor regulations) for themselves. By the time McChrystal proposed his equally compromised, and militarized, war on poverty for Afghanistan, General John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Wesley Clark, one of McChrystal’s predecessors as NATO commander, were calling the high proportion of American youth unfit for military duty “a matter of national security.”

A liberal capitalist republic’s strengths depend on virtues and beliefs that can’t be nourished by great armies, huge fortunes, and the casino-like financing, predatory lending, and intrusive consumer marketing that make market-exchange values the measures of all things—in education, in journalism, even in churches. Better forms of social organization have been implemented by civil societies that have resisted such models before, quite often non-violently, as described by the late writer Jonathan Schell in The Unconquerable World: Nonviolence, and the Will of the People.

But Schell notes that sometimes those societies’ success required well-organized resistance to established models and authorities, especially if those authorities ruled from abroad: “Each imperial power, it seemed, tackled guerrilla resistance to its rule with refreshed ignorance.”

With refreshed ignorance, the present occupant of the White House is clamping a regime of markets uber alles down upon the republic at home. And, like King Canute, he’s trying to reverse tides of global free trade with a revived, nationalist mercantilism and opportunistic deal-making that might include diving right into the Afghan government’s swamp of corruption in order to co-opt it for American interests.

Tribal, Islamist Afghans won’t accept that kind of government and economy any more than they’ve accepted neoliberal development that prompted the Taliban. The current occupant of the White House may not have been wrong to puncture neoliberals’ conceits about global trade, development, and philanthropy. But because he has also punctured democracy at its best, he has nothing left but the refreshed ignorance of his militarized non-solution.

Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.