Our interview was off the record, because President Obama hadn't yet laid out his Afghan strategy.
But now that the strategy is unveiled, and McChrystal has testified before Congress, I'm free to use some of the conversation.
Uh, ok. Anyway, the part that's interesting is what COMISAF actually said:
What will happen if we don't try to stabilize Afghanistan, I ask? His sober answer: "Civil war that kills . . . one million? No side can win. Al-Qaeda will come back. If Afghanistan implodes, I'm not sure Pakistan would survive."
Why in the hell would you ask what will happen "if we don't try"? Who gives a damn about trying?? Have you considered the possibility that we may try and still fail, and that precisely the same conditions will obtain afterwards, only we'll have wasted $100 billion and 1,000 or so American lives? Is trying going to prevent civil war, or the return of al-Qaeda, or the much-feared collapse of Pakistan?
The phrasing of the question is telling, really -- it's revelatory of the way that we tend to think about asymmetric wars, about conflicts with seemingly disorganized armed bands in what we like to think of as backwater countries: we couldn't possibly lose if we're just trying hard enough.
Maybe I'm making too much out of this. And I haven't even really addressed GEN McChrystal's scaremongering. (Why would al-Qaeda return when the absolute best-case scenario they could hope for in Afghanistan is to replicate the conditions that presently exist in Pakistan?) But really, shouldn't we be asking the question "what is going to happen if we can't achieve our objectives?", rather than "what happens if we don't try?" And then, better yet: how much can we hope to accomplish even if we are trying?