Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the media coverage around Michael Hastings’ incendiary profile of General Stanley McChrystal has focused on the junior high antics and petty name-calling of McChrystal and his staff. I can’t deny that I was entertained (and simultaneously dismayed) by the portrayal of a bunch of drunken fools bellowing what they call an Afghanistan “song” (“Afghanistan!” at the top of their lungs) and what could be a record number of f-bombs in one piece of journalism.
Aside from the immaturity and lack of self-awareness displayed in the article, the attitude toward civilian leadership is cause for concern. If Obama is to stick to his July 2011 start date for withdrawal, and hopefully bow to increasing congressional and public pressure to change course and set an end date, he can’t be dealing with a military core command that mocks the civilian leadership and disrespects the fact that the administration is the bottom line on policy. However, the president’s decision to relieve McChrystal of his command avoids the central issue—that the strategy supported and carried out by McChrystal is a failure. On the Daily Beast, Peter Beinart lays out the opportunity this blowup provides, noting, “[Obama] should use McChrystal’s transgression to install a general who will publicly and unambiguously declare that America’s days in Afghanistan are numbered.” Instead, he has appointed General Petraeus—the one other person most closely identified with the unrealistic counterinsurgency strategy.
Many of the previous profiles of McChrystal have fawned over his discipline and ascetic lifestyle. Hastings gets to the heart of the myth behind the man and how it has blinded readers and journalists to the problems with the Afghanistan strategy:
It’s a kind of superhuman narrative that has built up around him, a staple in almost every media profile, as if the ability to go without sleep and food translates into the possibility of a man single-handedly winning the war.
Retired Colonel Douglas MacGregor gets straight to the point:
“The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people,” says Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel and leading critic of counterinsurgency who attended West Point with McChrystal. “The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.”
There has been nothing but bad news pouring out of Afghanistan in recent weeks. Hastings provides just a brief summary here:
Today, as McChrystal gears up for an offensive in southern Afghanistan, the prospects for any kind of success look bleak. In June, the death toll for U.S. troops passed 1,000, and the number of IEDs has doubled. Spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the fifth-poorest country on earth has failed to win over the civilian population, whose attitude toward U.S. troops ranges from intensely wary to openly hostile. The biggest military operation of the year – a ferocious offensive that began in February to retake the southern town of Marja – continues to drag on, prompting McChrystal himself to refer to it as a “bleeding ulcer.” In June, Afghanistan officially outpaced Vietnam as the longest war in American history – and Obama has quietly begun to back away from the deadline he set for withdrawing U.S. troops in July of next year. The president finds himself stuck in something even more insane than a quagmire: a quagmire he knowingly walked into, even though it’s precisely the kind of gigantic, mind-numbing, multigenerational nation-building project he explicitly said he didn’t want.
McChrystal has attempted to fight a different kind of war in Afghanistan. He has been appropriately lauded for his recognition that civilian casualties are a strategic disaster (not to mention a moral one). But Hastings reveals that this big picture strategic vision is not at all popular with troops in the field.
During the question-and-answer period, the frustration boils over. The soldiers complain about not being allowed to use lethal force, about watching insurgents they detain be freed for lack of evidence. They want to be able to fight – like they did in Iraq, like they had in Afghanistan before McChrystal. “We aren’t putting fear into the Taliban,” one soldier says.
The point here is not that McChrystal “gets it” and the troops on the ground are just angry louts who want to “get their f***ing gun on.” Soldiers are trained to kill, and they are being put in dangerous situations where their presence is fueling violence and they fear for their lives. It is unrealistic to think you can fight an indigenous insurgency while avoiding accidental killings of innocent civilians. But as McChrystal points out, killing a lot more Afghans isn’t going to “win” the war either. I’ve argued before that the COIN strategy is a fantasy, as have many others.
McChrystal did not take kindly to others raising these truths about his beloved COIN approach. Retired General Karl Eikenberry, now Ambassador to Afghanistan, pointed out the flaws and offered alternative approaches in a series of classified cables to the State Department. Rather than considering an alternative viewpoint, McChrystal disparaged the motives of someone with on the ground civilian and military experience in Afghanistan: “Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’”
As the New York Times editorial board pointed out before the resignation was announced:
Instead of answering questions about his media strategy, General McChrystal should be explaining what went wrong with his first major offensive in Marja and how he plans to do better in Kandahar. Instead of General McChrystal having to apologize to Mr. Holbrooke and Mr. Eikenberry, they all should be working a lot harder to come up with a plan for managing relations with Afghanistan’s deeply flawed president, Hamid Karzai.
Are we going to get those answers from General Petraeus? It seems doubtful. He is the torchbearer for COIN, having written the Counterinsurgency Field Manual. He doesn’t seem to have his eye on an endgame in Afghanistan. When questioned by Congress about the meaning of the July 2011 start date for withdrawal, Petraeus said it is “not the date the U.S. heads for the exits.” At this point, there is no clear indication of what kind of drawdown would happen then, and Secretary Gates is denying reports that “a whole lot” of troops would leave at that time. When facing tough questioning by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Petraeus echoed McChrystal’s lack of interest in opposing views of the war, saying “serendipity” was responsible for reductions in violence after US troops’ moving out of an area, rather than considering that the military presence might be exacerbating the violence.
This is what makes our continued work to pressure Congress and the administration so vital:
“If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular,” a senior adviser to McChrystal says. Such realism, however, doesn’t prevent advocates of counterinsurgency from dreaming big: Instead of beginning to withdraw troops next year, as Obama promised, the military hopes to ramp up its counterinsurgency campaign even further. “There’s a possibility we could ask for another surge of U.S. forces next summer if we see success here,” a senior military official in Kabul tells me.
President Obama said in his announcement today, “This is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy.” What we need is both. Rather than allowing the military to further sink the US into a quagmire in Afghanistan, we need to be pushing them toward the exits, and replacing the strategy with diplomacy, development, political reconciliation and civilian counterterrorism efforts. We can start by telling the House to support Rep. McGovern’s bill to require a timeline for withdrawal and to vote against the $33 billion to escalate the war.