By all appearances, Obama’s move to replace McChrystal with Petraeus is a doubling down on the current strategy in Afghanistan. In his statement announcing the change, the president sought to make that clear, saying “This is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy.”
Well, here’s a news flash: All the junior-high smack talk and towel snapping in Michael Hastings runaway Rolling Stone feature is window dressing to a powerful case for why we should chuck the whole war, not just the General.
For one, the story about respect for civilian authority here doesn’t just apply to McChrystal’s attitude towards the President. Hastings documents how the military has taken over traditionally civilian roles in the war, mucking it up in the process and leaving the US diplomatic and civilian apparatus starved of stature and resources. The drama and personality conflicts between the military jarheads and diplomatic nerds is no doubt entertaining, but I think it’s worth highlighting that a great big
Part of the problem is structural: The Defense Department budget exceeds $600 billion a year, while the State Department receives only $50 billion.
In addition, there’s a leadership vacuum on diplomatic matters has allowed the military to call the shots.
While McChrystal and his men are in indisputable command of all military aspects of the war, there is no equivalent position on the diplomatic or political side. Instead, an assortment of administration players compete over the Afghan portfolio: U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, National Security Advisor Jim Jones and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not to mention 40 or so other coalition ambassadors and a host of talking heads who try to insert themselves into the mess, from John Kerry to John McCain. This diplomatic incoherence has effectively allowed McChrystal’s team to call the shots and hampered efforts to build a stable and credible government in Afghanistan. “It jeopardizes the mission,” says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who supports McChrystal. “The military cannot by itself create governance reform.”
It’s also interesting to note that McChrystal was at least partly able to create that vacuum with a move to lock out Karl Eikenberry, the former military commander in Afghanistan and the US Ambassador who famously expressed deep reservations on the McChrystal’s counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy.
By far the most crucial – and strained – relationship is between McChrystal and Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador. According to those close to the two men, Eikenberry – a retired three-star general who served in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2005 – can’t stand that his former subordinate is now calling the shots. He’s also furious that McChrystal, backed by NATO’s allies, refused to put Eikenberry in the pivotal role of viceroy in Afghanistan, which would have made him the diplomatic equivalent of the general. The job instead went to British Ambassador Mark Sedwill – a move that effectively increased McChrystal’s influence over diplomacy by shutting out a powerful rival. “In reality, that position needs to be filled by an American for it to have weight,” says a U.S. official familiar with the negotiations.
All this power has meant that McChrystal has been able to turn Afghanistan into a proving ground for COIN, a style of warfare that, as Hastings puts it, “essentially rebrands the military, expanding its authority (and its funding) to encompass the diplomatic and political sides of warfare: Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps.”
COIN calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation’s government – a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve.
The problem is, this glove does not fit. Soldiers are trained to fight. They may be highly intelligent with the best intentions, but they aren’t diplomats, they aren’t aid workers, they aren’t skilled in managing development projects. As the pace of civilian deaths has accelerated, Afghans certainly haven’t taken to seeing the US presence as a trusted ally, or as McChrystal posed, as a guest.
In fact, by building up his BFF status with Hamid Karzai, McChrystal has likely helped telegraph the impression of Karzai as a puppet of the government and undermined the leader’s credibility. Of course that’s not what McChrystal intended, as he “accompanied the president on more than 10 trips around the country, standing beside him at political meetings, or shuras, in Kandahar.”
The confusion is top to bottom in Afghanistan, and some in the military have applauded McChrystal’s departure because of his directives meant to minimize civilian deaths. Those directives get right the fact that civilian deaths are a key strategic failing if you are trying to rebuild. What they get wrong is it’s an impossible task to fight a war without killing the wrong people. The problem is the war itself, and McChrystal’s attempts to turn the war into some kind of “kinder, gentler” war aren’t working.
Hastings documents the backlash from soldiers, who feel their lives are on the line when their ability to use lethal force is tightly restricted. It’s McChrystal’s Q&A session with a couple dozen soldiers, reeling from the recent death of one of their comrades, that most poignantly illustrates how confused and frustrated many must be.
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.
“Winning hearts and minds in COIN is a coldblooded thing,” McChrystal says, citing an oft-repeated maxim that you can’t kill your way out of Afghanistan. “The Russians killed 1 million Afghans, and that didn’t work.”
“I’m not saying go out and kill everybody, sir,” the soldier persists. “You say we’ve stopped the momentum of the insurgency. I don’t believe that’s true in this area. The more we pull back, the more we restrain ourselves, the stronger it’s getting.”
“I agree with you,” McChrystal says. “In this area, we’ve not made progress, probably. You have to show strength here, you have to use fire. What I’m telling you is, fire costs you. What do you want to do? You want to wipe the population out here and resettle it?”
A soldier complains that under the rules, any insurgent who doesn’t have a weapon is immediately assumed to be a civilian. “That’s the way this game is,” McChrystal says. “It’s complex. I can’t just decide: It’s shirts and skins, and we’ll kill all the shirts.”
As the discussion ends, McChrystal seems to sense that he hasn’t succeeded at easing the men’s anger. He makes one last-ditch effort to reach them, acknowledging the death of Cpl. Ingram. “There’s no way I can make that easier,” he tells them. “No way I can pretend it won’t hurt. No way I can tell you not to feel that. . . . I will tell you, you’re doing a great job. Don’t let the frustration get to you.” The session ends with no clapping, and no real resolution. McChrystal may have sold President Obama on counterinsurgency, but many of his own men aren’t buying it.
But as bad as things have gotten, McChrystal and the Obama administration appear undeterred, with McChrystal in the article quoted as suggesting the possibility of another infusion of troops. This blind dedication to a strategy, to the point of ideology, was the reason he should be fired.