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While The Commander Changes, What Of The Strategy?

2010 June 29


That General David Petraeus is superhuman to conservatives is not to say he should be toxic to the left, as both of their fates are now intertwined. His reversal of Iraq’s fortune saved the second term of George W. Bush. His implementation of Counter Insurgency theory during the Iraq “Surge” is regarded as an important decision that left to the short term win for America, bringing what President Obama calls “The Unnecessary War” closer to its completion. Yet in the long term, it was the progress of this theory that led us here, to Stanley McChrystal resigning in disgrace and Petreaus back on the ground.

Petraeus’ graceful return only underscores the speed which with the events of last week were processed. On Monday the 21st, pieces of Michael Hastings’ atom bomb of a story started to leak from Rolling Stone’s offices. The next morning,, proving they are more than just Dick Cheney’s PR firm, published a PDF of the print magazine version of the article.  By lunchtime Wednesday, when the publication was finally hitting newsstands, McChrystal was just another peg in the game of Unemployed Life.

From the start of the feature, McChrystal and his people come off as The Not Fit For Embedded Journalist Players. Reading the piece, you almost expect to hear the right wing punditocracy yell “THAT’S HOW WAR HEROES TALK!” Paragraph after paragraph set a scene of McChrystal and his troops jawing about their commanding officers with little to no respect, whining about Parisian restaurants being too “Gucci,” and using the phrase “so fucking gay” to describe McChrystal’s dinner with “some French minister.” Their behavior is depicted as obnoxious, low-brow, and typical of the frattish uncivilized pop culture stereotypes of life in the armed services, and would have no impact if on their own. But, these moments of BP-level-crude are important because the sentiment behind them does not vanish once you get to the real topic at hand: the frustration with our current implementation of Counter Insurgency theory, in a war McChrystal could not roughneck a win out of.

This strategy, if famous for anything, is known for being slow and arduous. As reported by Hastings and many others, the history of military victory in Afghanistan is a single notch, which shows that the strategy isn’t for the immediate-results-minded:

When it comes to Afghanistan, history is not on McChrystal’s side. The only foreign invader to have any success here was Genghis Khan – and he wasn’t hampered by things like human rights, economic development and press scrutiny. The COIN doctrine, bizarrely, draws inspiration from some of the biggest Western military embarrassments in recent memory: France’s nasty war in Algeria (lost in 1962) and the American misadventure in Vietnam (lost in 1975). McChrystal, like other advocates of COIN, readily acknowledges that counterinsurgency campaigns are inherently messy, expensive and easy to lose.

With these acknowledgements from McChrystal, it’s alarming how undiplomatic the man is in front of a journalist from a major, publicly anti-war publication.

At the time of Obama’s decision to replace David McKiernan with McChrystal, it fit with the Go In And Fix Things directive that the Obama White House rode in on from the ballot box. The lore of McChrystal revolves around routine nights of 3 hours or less sleep, coupled with a determined avoidance of time with his wife, who he sees, according to the RS article, no more than 30 days a year. McChrystal’s take-no-prisoners – unless it’s a black ops mission – reputation preceded him going into this important position. That his single-minded objective-based drive permeated into how he dealt with superior officers wasn’t as public. Or at least it was not until he used the Washington Post to leak a Troop Request memo before Obama had made a decision.

McChrystal’s status as a True Believer in Counter Insurgency takes a “You sunk my battleship!”-level hit in the article, when he spills the following to Hastings, about the time he spent waiting last fall for the troop level increase: “I found that time painful … I was selling an unsellable position.” That statement has a ripple effect throughout the article. McChrystal can’t convince his own troops that it’s right to follow his plan, which involves not shooting potential Taliban soldiers who aren’t clearly armed.

The RS piece depicts the fallout when a soldier dies trying to stick to this rule. McChrystal acts the part of the good commander, replying to soldiers’ frustrated emails and going in to meet with them in their time of grief. Yet he walks away from them having done nothing to ease the tension, and the soldiers show little faith in the strategy they are following. Quoting Hastings: “The session ends with no clapping, and no real resolution.” This brings a troubling problem to the forefront. McChrystal was selling an unsellable position, one that Petraeus will now inherit, and unless Petraeus can argue COIN has just as much validity in Afghanistan as it did in Iraq, it isn’t the right military product for the White House to spending American lives on at this time.

Throughout the article, though, McChrystal is nothing if not stubborn in his belief in a more prolonged strategy, which is opposed to Biden’s more lightweight CT*-plus model, but his only successful means of arguing for it is to call the President unpatriotic for considering all the possibilities before sending him more troops, which Obama ended up announcing at West Point on Dec. 1, 2010. McChrystal argues for a plan where diplomacy and war theatre go hand in hand, but his seems to be a life without diplomacy. After the article came to light, it stood to reason that he wasn’t the right man for the job.  Hopefully, for the sake of the country, David Petraeus will be.

If Petraeus can again reverse a tide thought to be unstoppable, it’s a big political win for an administration in need of good news and accomplishments. At the same time, it’s another victory for the right and the Bush White House, who can say Obama inherited** a winning strategist, and that the right understands war while the left just copies and pastes in their answers.

With either victory or defeat, and especially with the latter, many will question Obama for choosing to run with the Counter Insurgency strategy inherited from the previous administration. On the campaign trail, Obama spoke of Afghanistan as “The Necessary War,” but one wonders if these two wars are as possible to “win,”*** with COIN or any other stratagem, as they are different in their legitimacy. Obama ran on a positive campaign message of what we can do, but as we continue invest our country and our troops in what is now the country’s longest lasting war, it may be best to consider what we cannot do.

* Counter Terrorism

** One imagines this will come up every time a Democrat mentions the ton of negatives the Obama White House inherited.

*** What is the mission, anyway?

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