- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It makes sense when a high-ranking U.S. military officer loses his job for publicly criticizing the American president. These days, however, a general can be sacked even for simply speaking the truth about a foreign head of state.

Last week, Maj. Gen. Peter Fuller, U.S. deputy commander in Afghanistan, was shown the door for taking aim at Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In an interview with Pakistan’s Geo TV on Oct. 23, Mr. Karzai said, “If there is war between Pakistan and America, we will stand by Pakistan,” saying he would never turn against “a brother country.” The provocative comment naturally raised hackles in the U.S. military community, which has sustained more than 1,700 deaths and 14,600 wounded in a decade after liberating the Afghans from Taliban rule. “Why don’t you just poke me in the eye with a needle! You’ve got to be kidding me,” Gen. Fuller said in reference to Mr. Karzai’s comment. “I’m sorry, we just gave you $11.6 billion and now you’re telling me, ‘I don’t really care’ “? These and other statements cost this American warrior his job.

There is no argument that Gen. Fuller’s comments were out of line. It is not the place of the uniformed military to make public statements that either implicitly or explicitly question war policies or strategies. But there is also no argument that his critique rang true. It’s been a long, hard slog in Afghanistan, and U.S. troops don’t want to hear that it’s all been for nothing.

Mr. Karzai is in a difficult position as the head of an unstable government, surrounded by enemies and knowing that the Obama administration is trying to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. On occasion, he makes statements for regional consumption that sound - and in fact are - ungracious. The United States is expected to be the understanding partner in the relationship and not be offended. Pragmatism is part of diplomacy, after all. Likewise, Americans have to ignore Pakistan’s doubletalk, duplicity and direct support for terrorism - all in the name of maintaining a stability that lately looks less and less stable.

There’s more to bilateral relationships than mere political convenience. When leaders like Mr. Karzai are allowed to adopt such frankly ungrateful tones, it harms both the U.S. commitment and the war effort generally. It leads to exasperation among the American people and breeds contempt among the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Coalition troops are fighting and dying every day to prop up the Karzai government. When he says his country would take sides against the United States in a conflict, the proper response is, “Fine, call us when the Taliban are about to hang you from a lamppost. Maybe we’ll answer.”

The fact that Gen. Fuller was immediately fired shows just how deeply official Washington has internalized the “see no evil, speak no evil” approach to wartime diplomacy. The White House implicitly sent a message to Mr. Karzai that he is free to say anything he wants about the United States, and that this country will accept any humiliation he can dish out.

U.S. Gen. John R. Allen, the current commander of NATO Afghan forces, excavated the credibility gap a bit more when he said that Gen. Fuller’s “unfortunate comments are neither indicative of our current solid relationship with the government of Afghanistan, its leadership, or our joint commitment to prevail here in Afghanistan.” Really, General? The continued unwillingness of the U.S. government to speak openly and honestly about the challenges facing us in Afghanistan is one of the reasons why the U.S. public is giving up on this war. Gen. Fuller’s statements may have been undiplomatic, but that is what made them so refreshingly honest.

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