Gen. Stanley McChrystal is apologizing for remarks he made in a Rolling Stone interview denigrating Vice President Joe Biden and US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry.
McChrystal is said to have asked “Who’s that?” at the mention of Joe Biden’s name, and to have suggested that Amb. Eikenberry leaked memos critical of McChrystal’s planned counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan because he wanted to cover himself against harsh criticism if the war went badly wrong. His staffers, interviewed for the piece, were even more derisive of Obama insiders.
President Obama absolutely must fire McChrystal for insubordination. You can’t have the office of the vice presidency disrespected in public by a general in uniform that way. Nor is it plausible that the Obama team has a prayer of getting Afghanistan right, assuming such a thing is possible, if the commanding military officer and the ambassador are feuding like the Baizai and the Ranizai.
Obama has largely misunderstood the historical moment in the US. He appears to have thought that we wanted a broker, someone who could get everyone together and pull off a compromise that led to a deal among the parties. We don’t want that. We want Harry Truman. We want someone who will give them hell. We don’t want him to say one day that Wall Street is making obscene profits when the rest of the country suffers, then the next day say that the brokers deserve their bonuses. We don’t want him to mollify Big Oil one day then bash it the next. More consistent giving of hell, please.
If Obama doesn’t fire McChrystal, he will never be respected by anybody in the chain of command that leads to his desk. Moreover, moving McChrystal out now would be a perfect opportunity to pull the plug on the impractical counter-insurgency campaign that the latter has been pursuing, which probably has only a 10% chance of success. (A RAND study found that where a government that claimed to be a democracy actually was not, and where it faced an insurgency, it prevailed only 10% of the time. Sounds like President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan to me.)
President Truman got to the point in the Korean War where he was willing to dicker with the Chinese and to recognize the 38th parallel as an armistice line between South Korea and the north. MacArthur kept rejecting such talks and baited the Chinese. Truman fired him. Obama has to be made of that Trumanian stuff if he wants to turn the country around. We aren’t out of the woods. There could be a double dip in the economy, or a long-term Japan-style post-bubble stagnation. Wall Street is still taking us to the cleaners and getting their capital gains taxed at 15% when it is being alleged there isn’t enough tax money to cover the needs of the rest of us. The Supreme Court is undermining the Bill of Rights, criminalizing speech and association, and gutting campaign finance reform by favoring corporations as persons. Big Oil is openly fouling our environment and Big Gas is doing the same thing more quietly. And the military industrial complex has us mired in forever wars that we can’t win and can’t afford.
The Rolling Stone interview must have somehow spun out of control– McChrystal can’t possibly have planned out such a brain-dead counter-insurgency campaign against the vice president’s offices in the Naval Observatory beforehand. Presumably McChrystal did the interview because he is afraid he is being undermined in Washington. The left wing of the Democratic Party wants out of Afghanistan, in part because they don’t think the country can afford the war any more. Powerful critics of McChrystal’s approach are said to be gaining President Obama’s ear as it has failed to produce quick and tangible results. McChystal may have thought he would have an opportunity to appeal directly to the young staffers who make so much happen on Capitol Hill.
Mark Ambinder at the Atlantic reminds us that McChrystal’s feud with Eikenberry goes back to the days when McChrystal was commander of JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, and ordered his men into Afghanistan in 2005 to carry out a covert op of which Gen. Eikenberry disapproved. Rumors of JSOC cowboyism and even illegalities have swirled for years.
A great irony is that McChrystal and Eikenberry appear to have traded places five years later, with McChrystal favoring big conventional military operations and Eikenberry urging that the US make do with small targeted counter-terrorism strikes.
The most recent roots of this grudge match go back to the dispute within the Obama administration last year over how to deal with Afghanistan. Eikenberry, a former general, had been one of McChrystal’s predecessors as commander of US troops in Afghanistan. And Biden had spent decades either chairing or being ranking minority member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. These seasoned observers of Central and South Asia concluded that the best the US could do in Afghanistan was small-scale targeted counter-terrorism. Counter-terrorism implies intelligence work, deployment of special operations forces against small, specific targets, and use of air strikes and drones. Biden is said to have suggested getting most US troops out of Afghanistan and just striking at al-Qaeda wherever it popped up, especially in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
In contrast, McChrystal’s plan called for counter-insurgency, which implies large-scale conventional military campaigns, to “take, clear, hold and build.” That is, the US troops would take territory now held by insurgents, would clear it of Taliban or other militants, would hold it for the medium or long term so as to reassure local elders that they were in no danger from returning Taliban, and would use the opportunity to build infrastructure and services. Biden’s target was the largely Arab, foreign al-Qaeda, organized as small terrorist cells; but McChrystal wanted to root out the Taliban and their new Mujahidin allies, a much larger force that had roots in Pashtun society in a way that al-Qaeda does not. McChrystal’s plan required a massive troop escalation and the conquest by the US of large swathes of Pashtun territory in the southeast and southwest of the country. The hope was that while the US did counter-insurgency on a large scale, NATO and US troops would be training and equipping a large Afghanistan National Army of 200,000 and a similarly sized police force, and that in a few years the country could be turned over to them.
Obama backed McChrystal against Biden and Eikenberry, but threw McChrystal a curve ball by talking about beginning a troop withdrawal in summer of 2011 (thus taking a little piece of the Biden plan and inserting it awkwardly in the middle of Gen. McChrystal’s years-long counter-insurgency struggle– and thus inevitably undermining the latter).
Both the Biden/ Eikenberry and the McChrystal approaches have drawbacks. Counter-terrorism focusing like a laser on al-Qaeda would be largely irrelevant now in Afghanistan, where there is virtually no al-Qaeda. But that policy is being pursued in the tribal belt in Pakistan, alienating the Pakistani public because the drones often also kill innocent civilians. And, a rapid draw-down of US troops in favor of newly trained Afghan recruits may not be practical, given the poor esprit de corps, illiteracy, drug use, corruption and over-representation of minorities in the Afghanistan National Army and police. What would happen if, as the US drew down, the provinces around Kabul started swiftly falling to the Taliban or allied insurgents?
I know one Afghan scholar who for years went back and forth consulting with the Karzai government, who is convinced that if the US and NATO suddenly pulled up stakes, the Karzai government would fall within 3 days. Whatever you think of President Karzai, the prospect of him being hanged by Mulla Omar is hard to contemplate with equanimity.
On the other hand, McChrystal’s plan is in my view far too ambitious and likely completely impractical. It assumes that the Pashtuns want US Marines in their villages and would prefer them to the Taliban or other insurgents (most of whom are actually from the same tribes as and therefore cousins to these villagers). It assumes that the Kabul government can provide a ‘government in a box’ (in McChrystal’s words) to the provinces once the US military has conquered them. But Kabul is not well governed itself, much less being able swiftly to provide services and expertise in the provinces on demand. It assumes that the US push won’t alienate ever more Pashtuns, pushing them into the arms of the Taliban. It makes no distinction between Eastern and Western Pashtuns. And it assumes that an Afghanistan National Army of double the current size can be swiftly trained and deployed to replace the US troops as they move on to the next conquest. None of these assumptions is warranted, as is becoming clear in Helmand Province, where McChrystal’s demonstration project was the small farming villages of Marjah. It hasn’t gone as well as was initially suggested.
McChrystal’s next Big Idea was to attack Taliban strongholds the major southwestern Pashtun city of Qandahar (pop. about 1 million). Such an operation is extremely dangerous. If urban Pashtuns were alienated by it, they could go over to the insurgency in much greater numbers. (Right now, the Pashtuns are probably split 80-20 in favor of Karzai against the Taliban, but the US could easily push the rest of the Pashtuns into the arms of the insurgents if it isn’t careful. That would set the stage for another Afghanistan Civil War, since the northern ethnic groups– Tajiks, Hazarahs, Uzbeks, etc., absolutely despise the Taliban).
Afghanistan is a mess and likely will go on being a mess. It is the fifth poorest country in the world, is a major center of opium production and trafficking, has been wracked by decades of war (for much of which Washington is responsible), has a literacy rate of only 28%, and suffers from poor infrastructure and weak, corrupt, inefficient government. Its most troubled regions are populated by tribal people who have it as a code of honor to engage in feuds, and some of what the US sees as insurgency is just ordinary feuding. Tribes fall out with each other, and fight for a while until they make up. That way of life will eventually subside, when people become more settled, urban, and educated. But that day is a ways off for most Pashtuns.
In the meantime, I think counter-terrorism in Afghanistan is the right policy, though I think the drone strikes on Pakistani territory are very problematic and concur with those CIA officers who hold that they do more harm than good.
What you need in Afghanistan is a way of keeping the government from falling while you train up the new security forces (which must be put in a position where they either stand and fight or risk destruction– without the ability to depend on US infantrymen). I think this minimalist goal can be achieved via counter-terrorism. The counter-insurgency campaign was a dead end.