Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On McChrystal

The now infamous profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Rolling Stone makes for compelling reading. McChrystal comes across as a deeply dedicated and committed commander. For all the hyperventilation over the disparaging remarks McChrystal has for Vice President Biden and others in the Obama administration, what is most interesting is how clearly McChrystal understands counterinsurgency—and how clearly the author of the piece, Michael Hastings, does not.

Passages like this one are particularly telling:
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."

That McChrystal gets it, understands what must be done to achieve any sort of success in Afghanistan, makes it that much worse that he must now, in my view, be relieved of command. In what is truly epic irony, the man the article describes repeatedly as knowing just how far to push against a system and survive, in allowing this profile to be done, he has pushed too far.


Jason said...

This isn't sufficient for another post, but I would dissent from Ben's thinking that McChrystal must be relieved.

His breach of the chain of command was wanton and reckless, but his value to the mission in Afghanistan is simply to great at a time when we are very little facing a ticking clock.

I heard this morning McChrystal's trip around DC this week as a Tour of Public Humiliation, which I would agree with and I have no objections to humiliating him given how he humiliated himself and his commanders in the Rolling Stone piece.

Yet, I am of the mind that this Tour of Public Humiliation is atonement enough. I believe he should keep his command. There are no more promotions for the general, at least not now, but I would rather allow him to finish the job he started.

One side note: I find it immensely satisfying that perhaps the clearest example of blatant military insubordination to the commander in chief in this country takes the form of a magazine article, and not a coup. That the tradition of civilian leadership of the military is so strong that some ill-chosen words can get you banished make me feel proud of America.

Ben said...

Abu Muqawama lays out the case for and against dismissing McChrystal here. While I agree firing him now is not "ideal," I worry over the signal not firing him sends junior officers, what it says about the civilian control of the armed forces, and about UCMJ sec. 88, which Muqawama also highlights.

Ben said...

Eliot Cohen similarly praises Gen. McChrystal as a commander and strategists but calls for his firing in the Wall Street Journal.

Adam said...

I disagree completely. I think Hastings definitely gets it. I don't think he's arguing the merits of COIN, or whether McChrystal "gets" COIN. The vignette that you cite is simply an illustration of what the general has to deal with in implementing COIN - his daily life. Rather, the point of the article is that McChrystal is dangerous because he is a loose cannon that thinks he knows what's best better than anybody else and is determined to have things his own way, without civilian oversight. His duty as a general is to advise the President on strategy, then let the President decide what should be implemented, and then accept the president's decision and just fucking implement it. He shouldn't be trying to dictate strategy to Obama by leaking reports. When you have an insubordinate general like McChrystal, all you can do is get rid of him. One of the most telling parts of the article is that he and his crew liked Hillary most because she was just willing to give him carte blanche and not question him. And we haven't even talked about the shameful Tillman and prisoner abuse episodes that show his complete lack of judgment and indicate to me that he never should have been placed in command in the first place.

Ben said...

Actually, Adam, I believe you and I agree. Looking at the post again I realize it's not clear what is "particularly telling" about the passage. I meant that that passage is illustrative of a commander that understands the philosophy behind counterinsurgency rather than being illustrative of Michael Hastings' misunderstanding of the doctrine.

As to what we agree on--it's moot, now since the President relieved Gen. McChrystal--but, as I noted in my response to Jason, I find McChrystal's profile very troubling, despite agreeing with his strategy, because of the example it sets for junior officers and because it had the potential to undermine civilian control of the military.

As to Hastings not getting counterinsurgency, it strikes me that Hastings' contempt for COIN and his hostility toward the notion pervade that article and is apparent in a short follow-up he wrote today.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...