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Friday, June 25, 2010

What the McChrystal flap is about

I urge those of you who have not read the famous Rolling Stone article about General McChrystal to do so. It tells us a great deal about the general himself and about the war which we have unfortunately decided to fight. Agreement seems to be virtually unanimous that President Obama had to fire him, and I share that view. But this is much more than a case of a general shooting his mouth off--the irritation he and his staff expressed have deep roots in our flawed policy and strategy. First, however, let's begin with what the interview told us about the general himself.

General McChrystal may indeed have been a very effective combat commander in Iraq, but the article shows, in my judgment, that he should not have been appointed to head the coalition in Afghanistan, a job requiring qualities that he seems to have lacked. General George C. Marshall's selection of Eisenhower to command the allied coalition in Europe was brilliant because Eisenhower, though not a distinguished combat leader, was an excellent strategic thinker and, above all, something of a natural diplomat with a talent for getting along with his French and British counterparts. That is what coalition commanders do for a living, and McChrystal does not seem to have had the capacity--which many modern military officers have--to see the situation from the point of view of the French, the Germans, and the British. He seems more like a Patton than an Eisenhower, and Patton could never have held Eisenhower's job.

I would also like my regular readers, many of whom have had little contact with the military, to know that General McChrystal's cultural sensitivity, shall we say, is way below average for a man or woman of his rank. Many senior and mid-rank officers have lived in Europe and the vast majority of them enjoyed it thoroughly. Few of them would decide to spend an evening in Paris at an Irish pub. France, it is true, is widely unpopular in the military, but that, I finally realized, must be due to one simple fact: General de Gaulle's decision in 1967 to throw NATO military headquarters out of France. Rarely in twenty years in the War College have I heard any officers say anything negative about life in Germany, Italy, Belgium or Britain, and it would have been very easy to find a more sensitive coalition commander for Kabul. General Petraeus will fill that particular bill. I was also shocked to read that General McChrystal had been trying to increase President Karzai's prestige by accompanying him on visits to the provinces. I can't imagine anything better designed to drive home the Taliban message that Karzai is nothing but an American puppet.

The bulk of the article showed a general and his staff caught between conflicting forces, including various elements of the domestic leadership, his coalition partners, and his own troops. It did not, unfortunately, say much about another key element in the situation, the government of Pakistan. But the conflicting forces reflect far more than personalities. As in Vietnam, civil-military conflicts in Afghanistan reflect something much bigger: the difficulty of trying to secure impossible objectives. When the civilian political leadership lands us in such a mess, many seem to find it easier to blame other elements of our own government than to face up to the truth. That is what is happening here.

Some years back, at a conference, I heard the historian Herbert Schandler describe the recurring conflict between Lyndon Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War. Every six months or so, a frustrated LBJ would ask the Chiefs what they should do. "Bomb Hanoi," they replied, "mine Haiphong, invade Laos, invade Cambodia, and call up the reserves." Johnson would reply that the first four posed unacceptable risks of widening the war while the last was politically unacceptable at home, and the Chiefs in return would propose a small increment of forces. The Chiefs were enunciating classic American military doctrine after the Second World War: wars are won by applying maximum firepower to destroy enemy forces. (MacArthur was fired partly for pushing that doctrine in Korea, but after Korea most generals still thought he was right.) Johnson on the other hand was determined to win the war without risking the intervention of China and Russia or widening it beyond South Vietnamese borders. The real problem, however, was that neither he nor his generals had a winning strategy. The Chiefs' proposals (which eventually would have involved invading North Vietnam as well) would indeed have brought China, at least, into the war. Meanwhile, American firepower within South Vietnam could not create a South Vietnamese government strong enough to compete with the Viet Cong. If anything, it was counterproductive with respect to that objective.

That, as I have written here many times before, is also the problem in Afghanistan: Hamid Karzai cannot compete effecively with the Taliban among the Pashtun ethnic group to which they both belong. They offer organization, ideology, and a functioning local justice system, as well as effective intimidation in large parts of the country, including Marja and Kandahar. He offers money and the promise of American support. And there is nothing, in my opinion, that American military or civilian leaders can do about this. Significantly, McChrystal reserved his greatest ire for Vice President Biden, who was unfortunately the only high administration official, it seems, to have taken a position similar to the one I am taking here. It took me a long time to learn this, but when you say something that drives some one into a fury, there is usually only one reason--he or she knows at some level that you were right. Unfortunately, the American military has become obsessed with the idea that it must show that it can "do counterinsurgency," an idea which then-Major Petraeus put into his doctoral thesis at Princeton in the mid-1980s. But trying to prove it in Afghanistan or Iraq is revealing the need for more careful definitions of insurgency, counterinsurgency, and occupation.

The term "counterinsurgency" implies that an existing government, one which still commands broad support or at least exercises effective authority, is facing a local revolt of some kind or another that has secured control of part of the population. That was the situation in El Salvador in the 1980s and in South Vietnam in the late 1950s and early 1960s. By 1965, however, the government of South Vietnam had lost all its authority, and in Iraq, we eliminated all authority when we went in. In Afghanistan Karzai initially seemed to enjoy support but did not establish any real structure in the south and east of the country. This is not the time to discuss the complex situation that has evolved in Iraq, where the Baghdad government has established some authority over at least the Shi'ite population and reached an uneasy truce with the Sunnis, but in Afghanistan the Taliban have been gaining for several years, while Karzai has been losing prestige. That is not the kind of situation that American military power can reverse.

As the Max Hastings article showed, General McChrystal had firmly grasped one principal of counterinsurgency: that firepower has to be applied with extreme care so as not to alienate the population. But that in turn has alienated his own troops, who are working in a very hostile environment, and who probably sense that many Afghans resent their presence no matter now they behave. Restraint is part of a solution, but it is not the solution in a situation where the insurgents already command the respect of large parts of the population and are better-organized than the government.

General McChrystal also had evidently fallen out with the Ambassador in Kabul, retired General Eikenberry, the other senior official who seems to see the situation similarly to myself. In his infamous cable last fall, General Eikenberry made it clear that he did not believe Hamid Karzai would ever be politically successful, and therefore recommended against a larger American commitment. Now various voices suggest that General Eikenberry has to go. This is another echo of Vietnam in 1963-4, when Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge had advocated and masterminded the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem, while General Paul Harkins had been Diem's strongest supporter. Washington had lost confidence in Harkins but the Pentagon insisted that he could not be removed until Lodge was removed as well. LBJ hated and distrusted Lodge, but did not dare let him go in the midst of the Republican primaries of 1964, in which Lodge had emerged as a candidate. The situation dragged on for months until Lodge himself resigned.

In this case, Ambassador Eikenberry did not, like Lodge, advocate replacing Karzai with some one else. The ghost of Ngo Dinh Diem lives on: successive American governments have wisely ruled out that option in dealing with weak clients. Yet now various voices are calling for Eikenberry's replacement. That to me would be disastrous--he would be fired, essentially, for having been right. Our best hope now is that Eikenberry might persuade General Petraeus that while the Army has proved it can do counterinsurgency elsewhere, it can't do it in Afghanistan.

Another aspect of President Obama's announced policy--the withdrawal that is supposed to begin in a year--is bringing the politics of the situation to a head. It's apparently encouraging all the major local political forces to think about a deal, including Karzai, Taliban elements, and, today's New York Times tells us, the government of Pakistan. If you're a regular here, you read a long time ago that the Pakistani government wants the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan. The mainstream media is finally catching on to this. It's time for certain leading Americans to abandon the fiction that we have trouble with Pakistan because we have been an unreliable partner in the past. We are having trouble because they do not share our goals. A deal between Karzai and the Pakistan-backed Taliban might be the best option at this point--a parallel to the coalition government we would never accept in Vietnam. It would be an even better deal if the Pakistani security forces could be induced to hand over Osama bin Laden. Persisting in our current course will increase dissension within the Administration but it won't make the US more secure.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed the Rolling Stones Article, seeing what is happening behind the scenes. The "Bad Boy" Mcchrystal Baby Boomer head of Black OPs and COIN is an appealing type of prieate like figure in the military, easy to make a good Hollywood antiher o movie from this soemtime after the war is over. Petraeus is too bland/vanilla character to make a good film.

At any rate, as an Xer I am too young to pass judhement on the Vietnam comparison but must defer to your good judgement. Send the helicopters to the rooftops and evacuate before the Taliban get to Kabul.

I read an interesting post today saying that the current situation is similar to just before Civil War. Analyzing hte highly increased regulatory environemtn amongst people unwilling to accept new govt. regs he quotes civil war history:


“Then, in the turmoil and confusion of the postwar (Civil War) South, Congress found itself forced to intervene at the local level – the individual level – in ways that fell far outside the American political tradition. Before the war, the federal government had not reached down very far; it had delivered the mail, inspected steam engines, and helped capture runaway slaves, but not much else. Now it taxes individuals, extended aid to freed people, defined citizenship, specified rights, prescribed penalties for violating those rights, and soon would impose military administration of most of the South. In this crisis, Americans awoke to the power of the central government… The way was opening for a new political paradigm in which those on the radical side would embrace government action to defend equality.”
T.J. Stiles in “The First Tycoon,” Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York, 2009.

... The stronger you make the laws and the more severe you make the punishments, the more you increase the risks, temptations, and payoffs to work around the newly imposed barriers. It is like every other law that is designed to prevent bad behavior: if you don’t get at the root of this behavior (i.e. lack of awareness of the damage of bad behavior, and/or lack of awareness of the benefits of behavior with integrity), you just create a new class of criminals who are willing to break those new laws. Then more money in taxes will be needed for law enforcement officials who design new ways to go after the new criminals who break the new laws that fail to change the old underlying problem. It is the same governmental remedy that has failed in such things as the war against drugs, and before that the war against alcohol in the 1920’s. Prohibition and regulation are not the answer. It won’t solve the problem.

In many respects, this may be like the social climate just prior to the American Civil War.

Although he comes from a different school of thought, also cyclical (astrology) perhaps you could judge if his basic consclusions are somehow right in your sense.

Anonymous said...

'McChrystal Has Made a Fool
of Himself'


Anonymous said...

I've always found Obama's promise of a 2011 withdrawal extremely difficult to believe. On the eve of an election, any kind of military setback against a backdrop of tropp withdrawals is an obvious political risk. He plainly isn't anything else or better, but plainly Obama's a shrewd politician. He made this "promise" knowing that he some general or other would advise him to back away from it. It's arguably his most cynical move to date.
-- sglover

Anonymous said...

Just another Vietnam!

Afghanistan Withdrawal: Lawmakers Rebuke Obama For Calling Focus On It An 'Obsession'


L. A. Clayton said...

Hard to find an email address for you. Did you write a piece "History Unfolding?" It was just sent to me via email, and I tend to agree, but I am wary of email and authenticity.
We're near contemporaries, although I'm a little ahead of you in years. I too am an historian and tend to sound off on current and past affairs in my blog.
I'm just curious as to the authenticity of that email I received is attributed to you.
My email is lclayton@simplecom.net
Larry Clayton
Prof, History, Univ. of Alabama

Bozon said...

I went back and read through this one again! This really is lucid exposition of so many things, not really just the McChrystal flap.

Too bad it sits here for the few of us who happen along............

All the best,