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McChrystal And Petraeus Are Just Two Sides Of The Same Coin

July 3, 2010
Mc Chrystal smiles at a public event. Image via armybase.us and warisboring.com.

Mc Chrystal smiles at a public event. Image via armybase.us and warisboring.com.

The Taliban seem to be in a confident mood following the departure of American General Stanley McChrystal. The general was busily commanding NATO forces in Afghanistan until he was suddenly relieved of command last week, in the wake of a Rolling Stone article that recounted some unflattering comments by him and his staff about the civilian leadership in Washington. Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid put matters quite succinctly:

“We are certain that we are winning. Why should we talk if we have the upper hand, and the foreign troops are considering withdrawal, and there are differences in the ranks of our enemies?”

It’s interesting to look at what those differences in the ranks of the enemy might entail. The Rolling Stone article, as others have commented, is a terrific piece of journalism that describes McChrystal’s struggle against “the wimps in the White House”.

The media, in reporting the fallout, have tended to focus on a few mildly salty quotes from McChrystal and his aides: US President Barack Obama “didn’t seem very engaged” during a meeting with McChrystal, Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke was “like a wounded animal”, and so forth. Beyond personality clashes, however, the article hints at a more substantive conflict between the “counterinsurgency” (COIN) approach favoured by McChrystal and the demands of political expediency. The article describes COIN as follows:

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 theory 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.

That requirement for years and decades probably struck the civilian leadership as a problem, given Obama’s promise to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2011. Worse yet, the COIN approach hit a stumbling block earlier this year in the Marjah region of Helmand Province, where sending in troops and attempting to rebulid governance singularly failed to prevent re-infiltration by the Taliban. The Rolling Stone reporter, Michael Hastings, concluded his piece by saying that victory in Afghanistan did not really seem possible.

The most charitable reading of the Obama administration’s decision to dismiss McChrystal would be that Obama and his circle felt that a more confrontational strategy and a faster exit were needed, and simply used the Rolling Stone article as an excuse to get rid of a commander whose strategy they profoundly distrusted. However, this interpretation seems untenable. McChrystal’s replacement is General David Petraeus, a noted COIN adherent (and exponent, in Iraq) who apparently feels that the current strategy in Afghanistan requires only “tinkering and tweaking”. In accepting McChrystal’s resignation, Obama explicitly said that there was no “difference on policy” between him and the general.

Obama also said that he had not made his decision because of “any sense of personal insult”, which might be true as far as it goes. However, the lack of any clear strategic change implies that Obama got rid of McChrystal for reasons that were more theatrical than substantive. Whether it was sheer pique, a brittle Harper-esque insistence on “message discipline”, or a ham-fisted attempt to assert civilian control over the military – which of course was never in doubt anyway – it’s hard to disagree with the BBC’s John Simpson that:

Only a government as nervous as President Obama’s about seeming weak and indecisive would have reacted so fiercely.

However, I would feel rather more secure in sneering at Obama’s pettiness if the commander of Canadian forces in Afghanistan, Brigadier-General Daniel Ménard, had not been replaced for even more trifling reasons in May. Ménard “was removed from command following allegations he had an intimate relationship with a member of his staff”, falling foul of what sounds like an absurdly puritanical ban on fornicating with one’s comrades in arms. Soldiers, after all, have been getting it on in war zones since the days of Achilles and Patroclus. I fully agree with George Jonas, whose crusty, gritty perspectives I seem to appreciate more and more as I get older:

[D]epriving the country of a good soldier for nothing more than an extramarital fling with a subordinate means picking Mrs. Grundy’s priorities over Wellington’s priorities. For Canada’s military, it’s a damn poor choice.

Getting rid of McChrystal was probably an equally poor – or at least equally needless – choice for America’s military, and for the wider effort in Afghanistan. Just as well, I think, that we’ll be more or less out of there by around this time next year.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 4, 2010 7:44 am

    Thanks for your perceptive piece – of course I disagree with some of its conclusions – see Jon Krakauer, Where Men Win Glory, The Odyssey of Pat Tillman – both McC and Petraeus are just too implicated in the Bush/Cheney regime and actions over/in torture and Iraq for the publics of the world not to be wary of any of their theories or actions. (Glenn Greewald over at Salon continues to excoriate not only “the generals” but the Obama Administration as well. Funnily enough, the Rolling Stone article- so devoid of historical context – one longed for at least a little Robert Fisk and much less “insider baseball” – weird to think that Hastings’ brother is an officer in the US Army ! – i thought conducive to a sympathetic read of McChrystal. As America’s longest war grinds on, my rationale for drawing comparisons to Vietnam, not only stands, but deepens. The analogy is not literal. R.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      July 5, 2010 12:13 am

      My own opinion of McChrystal is mixed. In the Rolling Stone piece he came across as a fairly brash, obnoxious personality, and he’s been implicated in some unsavoury episodes. However, he seems to be doing at least three laudable things in Afghanistan: leading from the front, working to minimise civilian casualties and building a good relationship with Hamid Karzai.

      My complaint about the decision to fire him is that it was taken (or at least, appeared to have been taken) without much reference to strategic considerations. It came across as a case of a weak, painfully image-conscious administration lashing out at a commander who had dared to air a bit of dirty laundry in the presence of a journalist. If the White House had confidence in McChrystal’s basic strategy, he should have been left in place. If that confidence was lacking, this should have been made clear, and McChrystal should have been replaced by someone who would bring in a fresh approach (rather than a fellow COINer like Petraeus). As it was, the Americans removed McChrystal while professing confidence in what he had actually been doing, which just seems dysfunctional.

      The analogy to Vietnam is interesting, though I think only partly appropriate. Yes, the Afghan conflict involves conventional, technologically-advanced military forces taking on tough and determined local guerrillas. On the other hand, there’s no state playing the role of North Vietnam, covert Pakistani support for the Taliban notwithstanding, and the gap in training and equipment between the Western forces and the local guerrillas is bigger (probably a lot bigger) than it was in the case of Vietnam. The terrain is possibly a bit less conducive to guerrilla warfare, too. The real similarity, I guess, is that it’s a conflict in which the invading Western powers have no critical interests at stake. Like the French and Americans in Vietnam, we can all remain in Afghanistan to fight for our less-than-critical interests until we decide that we’ve either done enough or had enough, and go home.

  2. July 3, 2010 6:28 pm

    Brigadier General Daniel Menard was grossly incompetent. Sex with a subordinate was just a candle on a poison cake.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      July 4, 2010 11:10 pm

      Even under that interpretation, the military made itself look petty and puritanical by appearing to fire Menard over the candle, rather than the cake. If gross incompetence was the real reason, someone involved in the process should have said so loud and clear.

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