Rolling Stone magazine scored a veritable coup with “The Runaway General“, an exceptional exposé of General Stanley McChrystal, the (former) commander of all US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The article sent shockwaves through Washington (and Paris, Ottawa, Berlin, and Kabul, too).
What’s the big deal? Well for starters, the article includes scathing remarks made by Gen. McChrystal and his staff (a motley crew of super-soldiers who call themselves “Team America” of South Park-esque fame).
Consider these tidbits: President Barack Obama is described as a ditherer. Vice President Joe Biden is referred to as “Bite me”. French Ministers are hideously disparaged. ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force of which Canada is a part) becomes “I Suck at Fighting” and “In Sandals and Flip-Flops”. Retired US General Jim Jones is called a “clown … stuck in 1985”. President Obama’s Special Representative, Richard Holbrooke, is described as a “dangerous … wounded animal.” The embarrassments go on.
Yesterday, President Obama sacked Gen. McChrystal for his loose lips.
You can bet that the coming days will be filled with pundits, editorialists, and politicians tripping over each as they line up their talking points. Did Gen. McChrystal deserve this fate? Did President Obama act too hastily? How smoothly will Gen. McChrystal’s replacement, General David Patreaus (the architect of 2007 Iraq “surge”), transition in his new role? What does this mean for NATO and Afghan president Hamid Karzai? Is the Afghan campaign lost? Will the Taliban and al Qaeda spin all of this into a success? And on and on…
What shouldn’t be lost in the ensuing melee, however, is that the article itself does an excellent job of highlighting a number of ongoing tactical and strategic debates concerning the war in Afghanistan and the broader war on terrorism. No matter how the fiasco plays itself out, it would be wise to keep these debates in mind.
First, the article pits counterinsurgency (COIN) against counterterrorism (CT). There’s a difference between the two. The former is a whole-of-government approach that places as much importance on building things and avoiding civilian casualties as it does on shooting bad guys. The latter strategy is focused on killing and capturing terrorists and draining the swamps of insurgents. Gen. McChrystal did a bit of both. He continuously propped up President Karzai in hopes of strengthening indigenous security forces and placed unpopular restrictions on US combat operations to avoid civilian casualties. At the same time, he was described as a “terrorist hunter” and a proponent of the “darkest ops”. He dramatically increased the number of US Special Forces in Afghanistan and personally directed them to hit “four or five targets” a night. The tension derived from the ongoing COIN-CT debate is extraordinary and will long outlive Gen. McChrystal.
Second, the article underscores the problems associated with fighting wars multilaterally. Decision-making in combat is difficult even for a single government. Doing it in tandem with dozens of other governments and their militaries inextricably complicates the matter. The essence of the article is that NATO, Canada included, has more or less given up on the Afghan mission, which has become “the exclusive property of the Unites States”. In reading that Gen. McChrystal had to cozy up to the French in hopes of keeping them “from going all wobbly on him,” we can’t help but agree with his assertion that he was stuck “selling an unsellable position.” His Afghan strategy called for more troops and the allies balked. What that means for NATO has yet to be determined.
Third, the costs and benefits of targeted killings make an appearance in the article as well. While it is cliché to suggest that “we can’t kill our way out of this war”, in reality, targeting individual insurgent leaders is quickly becoming the hallmark of the war in Afghanistan (and Pakistan, too). When he orchestrated the Iraq surge in 2007, Gen. McChrystal’s team “killed and captured thousands of insurgents,” including al Qaeda in Iraq’s masochistic leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. When he took over in Afghanistan two years later, he imported the tactic. In fact, the rate of targeted killings launched by drones and Special Forces has increased precipitously since President Obama took office. Whether or not the tactic might pave the way for an Iraq-styled success story is now the thing to watch.
Fourth, the article informs ongoing debates as to the source of western Islamist radicalization. Why do westerners come to condone, legitimize, and participate in terrorism? Homegrown terrorists, like Time Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, seem to feed off foreign wars. On Monday, Shahzad happily plead guilty to attempting to detonate a car bomb in New York City last May. Shahzad lectured on: “I’m going to plead guilty 100 times over. [Until] the U.S. pulls its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, and stops the drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen and in Pakistan … and stops killing the Muslims, and stops reporting the Muslims to its government, we will be attacking [the] US, and I plead guilty to that.” Meanwhile, back in Afghanistan, Gen. McChrystal positioned a troop surge as the lynchpin of a “rising tide of security.” The benefit of a more robust US military presence in Afghanistan, he explained, was a diminishment of Taliban and al Qaeda power. The cost, if Shahzad is to be believed, is terrorist recruitment of western citizens. Once again, Gen. McChrystal was stuck in the middle.
And fifth, the article unintentionally underscores the complexity involved in successfully carrying out COIN operations. Ulrich Petersohn of the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich in Switzerland explains that one reason the US succeeded in pacifying Iraq in 2007/8 was due to “the close and personal relationship that existed between US military commander General Patreaus and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker.” They got along famously. “COIN only works,” Petersohn explains, “when both sides of the equation – the military guys doing the securing and the civilian guys doing the building – work together.” The Rolling Stone article is clear: we weren’t getting much of that in Afghanistan. To say that Gen. McChrystal and US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry had a difference of opinion, is an understatement. Their quarreling was detrimental to US and NATO objectives. It’ll be interesting to see if General Patreaus fares better.
Rolling Stone deserves some praise for reminding us of the complexity of modern warfare. Too bad it had to plunge the US into a (mini) military crisis to do so.