Thursday 24 June 2010

General McChrystal and Afghanistan

I’ve just read Michael Hastings' Rolling Stone article on General Stanley McChrystal and America’s campaign in Afghanistan that yesterday resulted in his dismissal. It’s honestly been one of the most enjoyable articles I’ve read in weeks. General McChrystal sounds like a formidable Special Forces commander who probably never should have been put in charge of the campaign in Afghanistan. Not because he is unqualified or unsuited for command, but because the civilian authorities appear to be.

The paradox was that on the one hand, the US wanted a counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan, but on the other hand wants to do this by minimising civilian casualties and keeping military activities at a minimum. The two goals are admirable, but contradictory, at least in the way they have been translated into policy. For instance, the article described the reaction of troops at Combat Outpost JFM, who have been given laminated cards that say: "Patrol only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourselves with lethal force.” I’m trying, and failing, to think what part of Afghanistan that would be.

The article also points out a salient fact: that the main Taliban rear areas in Pakistan have been largely untouched by the ground campaign, except by aerial drone attacks. This means that, just as in Vietnam, the US army is fighting on behalf of a political leader with little apparent authority in his own country, while the enemy’s main force huddles in safety on the other side of the Pakistani border.

Add to this the fact that the surge has been slow in getting off the ground, and that it is timed to end next year. It seems that in terms of strategy, the campaign is bound to fail: all the enemy have to do is remain in the fight. By not losing, they win.

Either the US and its allies need to fight with every means at their disposal, or they need to find a way to reach some accommodation with the Taliban and withdraw. If these two options are unacceptable, then the campaign will continue as it is presently configured: an expensive and inconclusive effort, with no end in sight, and little possibility of victory. Hamid Karzai has come to precisely the latter conclusion, according to recent press reports.

As for General McChrystal: I got the impression of a tremendously competent man, a warrior, who should be out planning missions and kicking down doors than suffering through dinner in Paris. He sounds like a classic Special Forces officer in the impossible and undesirable position of managing a conventional war planned and stage-set from national capitals, against an unconventional enemy that he probably understands better than anyone else.

The “trash talk” so magnified by the press honestly seems insignificant. The group of officers in that hotel room were blowing off the not inconsiderable steam that comes from being in a combat zone. While it’s unfortunate their comments had to be relayed in this way, I’m sure hundreds of thousands of other American citizens, government employees and members of the Armed Forces share similar thoughts.

It’s also interesting to note the double standard at work. None of the comments made by McChrystal or his aides were as vitriolic as those made by one senator against another in the 2008 Presidential race. Or by one senator against the President in a State of the Union speech. Both senators and generals are supposed to be leaders, and both are paid by the government, right?

When do you remember a US senator ever resigning for something they’ve said?


  1. McCrystal is a lot of things to many people, but to me he'll always be the Special Forces commander who covered up the fact that Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire.

    It's a war and things happen in war - a real leader would have owned up to it, rather than tried to hide it by awarding Tillman a medal posthumously.

  2. And once again, this failure of leadership goes all the way up the command chain and ends with the Commander in Chief, doesn't it?

    - McChrystal signed off on the Silver Star recommendation and then issued a memo saying Tillman may have been the victim of friendly fire.

    - After a lot of controversy, the DoD Inspector General issued a report on March 26th, 2007, that Tillman was the victim of friendly fire.

    - On June 15th, 2009, President Obama appointed McChrystal head of US forces in Afghanistan.