While we gather in anticipation outside the White House door, putting up an ear to the Oval Office, straining to hear any bits and pieces of the conversation, trying to make out whether Stanley McChrystal said “I’ve compromised the mission” again, it’s worth considering just what that mission is. And while the chatterers and courtiers run their personality-driven readouts of this whole Rolling Stone blowup, I’m encouraged by the number of reports – mostly confined to the blogosphere – about the actual war effort, and the futility thereof.

In a just world, everyone in media-dom would be talking about this story from the Financial Times. Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry, the top US diplomats in Afghanistan, went to Marja to check the status of the counter-insurgency effort. They heard consistent small arms fire throughout their meetings, and as they left, a bomb went off, apparently earmarked for them.

This is the state of the heralded COIN strategy. The occupying forces cannot hold a small village. 69 NATO troops have died this month. We have to pay the Taliban not to disrupt our supply lines (by the way, prior to the Congressional investigation on this, didn’t The Nation have this story way back in November?). Maybe the Rolling Stone article reflects these frustrations, but then, we should discuss the source of them, not the comments. Here’s Juan Cole:

Obama needs to define an attainable goal in Afghanistan and then execute it swiftly. As it is, when he is pressed about what in the world we are doing there, he retreats into Bushisms: “So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That’s the goal that must be achieved.”

Well that isn’t a good enough reason to be in Afghanistan. There is no al-Qaeda to speak of in Afghanistan. And although insurgents and Taliban probably control about 20 percent of the country, they have not let al-Qaeda set up shop in their territory. If they don’t now, when they obviously need all the help they can get, why would they in the future? One major guerrilla leader, Gulbadin Hikmatyar, went from expressing willingness to fight under the banner of al-Qaeda to roundly condemning the radical Arab group for having gotten the Taliban overthrown [...]

In short, we have no idea why US troops are being sent to Afghanistan at such an accelerating rate. It isn’t to fight al-Qaeda. And if it is mainly a matter of fighting the Taliban, why should we do that? They are not going to go away, and their brand of Muslim fundamentalism is by now woven deeply into the fabric of rural Pashtun life, such that for foreign Christian troops to argue the Pashtuns out of it at the point of a gun is a fool’s errand [...] In short, Karzai appears to be attempting to strike a deal with the very Taliban and insurgents that Obama says he is pledged to uproot and destroy.

Whether today is the last day of Stanley McChrystal’s command or not, the strategy in Afghanistan is unlikely to change. Certainly the White House has not signaled that whatsoever. The charitable explanation is that Obama is carrying out a political strategy to not be the President to lose a war, but that lets a candidate which promised this escalation in his campaign get away too easy. He can come out of today’s meeting convinced to do something new, or not. Whether McChrystal stays or leaves is besides the point.

UPDATE: A not-terrible column from Thomas Friedman says some similar things. So does Peter Beinart. I had trouble writing this paragraph.