A Contrary Voice On McChrystal

Everyone is blogging, talking, and tweeting about the profile of General Stanley McChrystal in the current edition of Rolling Stone, which hit the Internets today.  What seems to be catching everyone’s attention is a combination of the dismissive to disrespectful tone towards the Obama Administration that Gen. McChrystal allowed the reporter to see and which he seems to foster and encourage in his staff, and the fact that McChrystal so openly airs his policy disagreements with the President concerning the proper manner in which to handle U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.

No one I’ve yet read seems to have given the remotest thought pay any attention to the fact that McChrystal also seems to have little time for Hamid Karzai.  Perhaps this is because because the President of Afghanistan is so obviously a second-tier player in the struggle to pacify that country, resulting from the impotence of the government he commands.

No, the big issue is McChrystals’ obvious disrespect for the commander-in-chief, as evidenced by slurs, dismissals, and public contradiction of his surrogates, in the form of the Vice President, the Ambassador to Afghanistan, and Cabinet officials.  Many people call McChrystal’s attitude insubordinate and some have called for his resignation, recall, or firing.  He has been summoned to a sit-down with the President about the article and it has so far earned the approbation of “poor judgment” from the White House.

I won’t disagree with saying that allowing the Rolling Stone reporter to get this close to him and his staff, and airing his attitude towards the President so publicly, is “poor judgment.”  It’s appallingly unprofessional.  But I also don’t think McChrystal is insubordinate.  He doesn’t like the President and disagrees with the President’s policies.  No one ever said he had to like the President; he has a right as an American to disagree with the President’s policies.

What he has to do is follow the President’s orders and implement the policies he’s instructed to implement as best he can and using all the skills, personnel, and materiel available to him to do so.  If you read the article closely, you will see that he argued for implementing a counter-insurgency policy in Afghanistan — and prevailed; the President agreed with that suggestion as a matter of fact if not in explicit terms, and gave McChrystal nearly all of the men and materiel that he requested to implement that policy.  The President is perhaps unenthusiastic about the policy but that’s what the decision is.

There is no insubordination because I cannot find a spot in the article in which McChrystal is described as disobeying an order given to him by the President or even by the Pentagon.  He might be portrayed from the article as dragging his feet on things he does not think are good ideas, of creating policies of his own to do things he wants done in his way, and putting his hand in politics in Washington, Kabul, London, and elsewhere to try and create an atmosphere favorable to doing things his way.  But the very nature of his position requires this of him.  Counterinsurgency, as we’ve come to know from the Iraq war, requires a close relationship between the occupying military and the government which it is trying to prop up.  That government, in turn, takes as many cues from events in Washington and London and Paris as it does from events in Kabul and Kandahar.

Perhaps more to the point, a general given command of an entire theater is supposed to create policies to implement the mission.  He isn’t supposed to be a mechanic turning wrenches at Bagram.  He’s supposed to be identifying and solving problems on his own.  To criticize a man in McChrystal’s position for making and implementing the policies he thinks are the right ones is to criticize a business executive for doing things that he believes will maximize profits for his corporation.  Maybe you disagree with those decisions; that’s one thing.  But he’s supposed to be making them.  As to orders given to him, he certainly has a hand in fashioning what they are, but he has not disobeyed them and has not held himself out as having superior authority to the President.

This may be an indiscreet man, less politically savvy than one would prefer and one too willing to use leaks to influence the political dynamics at home to get his way.  Perhaps he let his ego get in the way of establishing a good relationship with the President; perhaps the President’s fundamental disinterest in military matters is partly to blame for that, too.  But my impression after reading the article is that he is not insubordinate, and he does not represent a threat to civilian control of the military.  This is not a situation akin to the challenge to civilian control of the military that Douglas MacArthur came to represent in 1951.

The real issue, it seems to me, is that counterinsurgency doesn’t seem to have been the right choice.  Not just President Obama, but also General McChrystal himself appears to have doubts and ambivalence about it.  It hasn’t produced any results yet.  And the story is not so much that a General in the military would clearly prefer to be reporting to a different commander-in-chief than he does — the story is that this General, having argued and successfully politicked for something approximating this policy, is having a hard time getting it implemented the way he wants and a harder time selling it to his troops.  Here’s the real money quote from the article if you were to ask me:

“Fuck, when I came over here and heard that McChrystal was in charge, I thought we would get our fucking gun on,” says [Staff Sgt. Kennith] Hicks, who has served three tours of combat. “I get COIN. I get all that. McChrystal comes here, explains it, it makes sense. But then he goes away on his bird, and by the time his directives get passed down to us through Big Army, they’re all fucked up – either because somebody is trying to cover their ass, or because they just don’t understand it themselves. But we’re fucking losing this thing.”

That seems to me to be profound evidence of a political failure on McChrystal’s part.  General level officers have jobs that are political and executive rather than operational in nature.  If McChrystal can’t get the orders he needs distributed to the soldiers in the way that they should be implemented, if he can’t get the soldiers who need to implement those orders to understand and embrace their mission, that’s a failure by a military leader to get his own job done, never mind whether or not the politicians in D.C. are sticking their fingers in what the General is trying to do.

That’s not to say the President comes out of this article looking good.  He doesn’t; my impression of Obama from the article is that Obama has no good ideas of his own for Afghanistan and agreed to counterinsurgency because no one else gave him any better ideas.  But the article isn’t so much about Obama as it is about a general who has (had?) a plan but can’t seem to make it happen because he can’t find a way navigate the course he wants to steer between the people to whom he reports and the people who report to him.

Which gets us back to the big picture.  That picture is that as in Iraq, there is no “winning” the war in Afghanistan.  At best, there may be sufficiently stable enough conditions that a substantial withdrawal of U.S. military forces can be accomplished with honor and credibility.  For that to happen, there has to be a functioning government that is more or less within the orbit of the industrialized West.  That, everyone seems to agree, is not a destination yet on the horizon.  If a reasonably-functioning government cannot be established, then Kabul 2015 is going to look a lot like Saigon 1975.

Let me throw out an idea for your consideration.  Maybe you won’t like it, and I’m not 100% behind it myself.  But I think it deserves some thought.  Democracy in Afghanistan is not the answer.  The “reasonably-functioning government” in Afghanistan that we must create will inevitably be based on a competent, centrally-controlled military; the involvement of a democratic process in selecting the people who ultimately command that military is a secondary concern at best and more likely somewhere between an irrelevancy and an impediment to the real goal.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. TL – I think you're largely right on this, but with a two caveats:1. It is not enough for a general to follow his commanders orders. He needs to enforce and embody those orders. It's pretty hard to imagine a team – within any organization – being successful when those tasked with executing a strategy are merely going through the motions because they don't fundamentally believe in the approach. That McChrystal has, at best, tolerated that atmosphere is beyond simply unprofessional.2. Look, Obama took a shitload of time deciding on a strategy for Afghanistan. All reporting to date has suggested that McChrystal largely led the team that ultimately prevailed. In other words, this approach is as much his approach as it is Obama's. If you don't think it's working, don't gripe to a fucking Rolling Stone reporter about. Pick up the damn phone and say, Mr. President, we need to make some changes. It's telling that many of the stories in this article are, in fact, about McChrystal. He's clearly fostered an environment where the command structure is clearly not on the same page, and has little respect for command decisions. This, to me, is what's so damn troubling.

  2. TL said: " If McChrystal can't get the orders he needs distributed to the soldiers in the way that they should be implemented, if he can't get the soldiers who need to implement those orders to understand and embrace their mission, that's a failure by a military leader to get his own job done"Sun Tzu said: "Failure to give clear orders and instructions is the commander's fault. But after the commander has clearly given instructions and yet orders failed to be followed. The troops and leaders are to be blamed, if they choose not to obey."

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