Prematurely Popping the McChrystal (w/ Updates)

This Rolling Stone article on Stanley McChrystal is causing a stir.  An aide has already been fired and some are speculating McChrystal himself might be next on the chopping block.

Like Spencer Ackerman I think it’s a lot of sizzle not much beef.  Gen. McC. and his aides like to make fun of Karl Eikenberry, Joe Biden, and Richard Holbrooke.  It’s beyond stupid of them to let all this be aired in Rolling Stone and they have no one to blame but themselves, but I’m not really sure this is a fireable offense.  It’s a perfect pretense to fire him if Obama is still pissed about McChyrstal’s leaked memo saying without 40,000 troops Afghanistan would be completely lost.

But basically McChrystal’s gotten everything he’s wanted so far.  He’s gotten all that he could reasonably ask for given the political climate and the length of the Afghanistan War.

It strikes me that the problem here is not the not particularly funny (at least on second telling and in print) frat boy humor amongst the general and his staff but the entire COIN strategy in Afghanistan.  I think firing McChyrstal at this point only leaves open the “We Would Have Won Afghanistan If Obama Hadn’t Fired McChyrstal” from the neocon hawks.  Though I suppose they are going to claim Obama and The Democrats betrayed their true cause and lost the war regardless so perhaps this doesn’t matter very much.

Here instead of this real crux of the issue, from the article:

Part of the problem is structural: The Defense Department budget exceeds $600 billion a year, while the State Department receives only $50 billion. But part of the problem is personal: In private, Team McChrystal likes to talk shit about many of Obama’s top people on the diplomatic side. One aide calls Jim Jones, a retired four-star general and veteran of the Cold War, a “clown” who remains “stuck in 1985.” Politicians like McCain and Kerry, says another aide, “turn up, have a meeting with Karzai, criticize him at the airport press conference, then get back for the Sunday talk shows. Frankly, it’s not very helpful.” Only Hillary Clinton receives good reviews from McChrystal’s inner circle. “Hillary had Stan’s back during the strategic review,” says an adviser. “She said, ‘If Stan wants it, give him what he needs.’?”

The structural problem goes much deeper than the Defense/State divide.  The State Department is built for nation-state to nation-state diplomacy.  It has shown repeatedly I think that it can’t handle post-initial conflict stabilization, reconstruction, and the rest.  But this article makes perfectly clear neither can a bunch of hardcore military types either.

This is why Thomas Barnett has always said you need to create a 3rd cabinet-level position (“The Dept of Everything Else” he calls it).

Even with a functioning Dept of Everything Else (which doesn’t exist and by itself is sufficient grounds for failure), I don’t think the US could win the peace in Afghanistan, given its context.

If you are going to run a COIN campaign in Afghanistan, McChrystal is probably the best guy available for the job.  I just don’t think a COIN campaign will ever work in Afghanistan.  Obama appears to be looking for the exits while Gates and Petraeus look to cash in the extension options on the July 2011 timeline.

This says everything that needs to be said about why the COIN is failing in Afghanistan:

The most striking example of McChrystal’s usurpation of diplomatic policy is his handling of Karzai. It is McChrystal, not diplomats like Eikenberry or Holbrooke, who enjoys the best relationship with the man America is relying on to lead Afghanistan. The doctrine of counterinsurgency requires a credible government, and since Karzai is not considered credible by his own people, McChrystal has worked hard to make him so. Over the past few months, he has accompanied the president on more than 10 trips around the country, standing beside him at political meetings, or shuras, in Kandahar. In February, the day before the doomed offensive in Marja, McChrystal even drove over to the president’s palace to get him to sign off on what would be the largest military operation of the year. Karzai’s staff, however, insisted that the president was sleeping off a cold and could not be disturbed. After several hours of haggling, McChrystal finally enlisted the aid of Afghanistan’s defense minister, who persuaded Karzai’s people to wake the president from his nap.

Instead of focusing on how politically stupid McChrystal undoubtedly is, why not focus on the fact the central government in Afghanistan is not in charge of the country and will never be and that our entire COIN campaign is predicated (of its own design) on the so-called host government filling the void.  There is no central state in Afghanistan, there hasn’t ever been a strong one since Mahmoud of Ghazna (11th century), and there isn’t going to be one.  Certainly not one brought in by a Western imposition.

McChrystal can think Biden, Eikenberry, et. al are wimps all he wants.  He can’t change the fundamental dynamics of Afghan society and all the rest is just insider baseball that has no real bearings on the issue at hand.

Update I: For an opposing view, see Fallows.  The already emerging consensus replacement pick is James Mattis.  (h/t Sullivan).

Update II: Breaking reports that McChrystal has offered his resignation.  Probably the right thing to do at this point, though I still think this has gotten blow way out of proportion too quickly.

Update III: The deed is done.  I wonder if there had been other stuff going on in the media if this story would have gotten buried?

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36 thoughts on “Prematurely Popping the McChrystal (w/ Updates)

  1. Obama’s problem isn’t the “neocon hawks”. It’s the reality that the President is disengaged with every major issue in his purview and the perception that creates among the Establishment and the American people. The neocon hawks will try to leverage this to their advantage like the rest of the world.

    It’s plausbile, maybe even desireable, that Obama use this as a pretext to ending the Afghan theater altogether. In other circumstances it would be plausible as a pretext for changing theater commanders but I don’t see how it works here. The President has no credibility in Afghanistan or counterterror issues in general except through his association with McChrystal. The support for the President is already very low, he can’t afford to let it go lower.

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  2. My dear friends who are ex-military tell me that there is a general rule of thumb when it comes to complaining about The Gummint: Don’t.

    That said, folks is folks and folks will complain. If you don’t follow the rule of thumb, follow the following rules:

    1) Only complain to people who are pretty much your peers. You don’t complain about the government to your XO. You certainly do not complain about the government to your CO. You can, however, complain to your bud in the chair next to you when your XO (and certainly your CO) is out of earshot.

    2) Never, never, never to a civilian. Never. Never never never. Never.

    This guy did that.

    One of the things I happen to dig about the US style of governance is the fact that there is civilian control of the military.

    When a General mocks, publically, the C-I-C?

    That’s a very roundabout way to submit a resignation. He should be given an opportunity to provide one in a more straightforward manner.

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  3. Jay touched on it and I agree. McChrystal tendered his resignation via Rolling Stone. You do not publicly disparage the civilian commander in chief when you’re in active service. I’d have said it if McChrystal had been on record (accurately) calling Bush Minor a brainless incompetent. The civilian oversight culture of the US government over the military is important and you simply can’t let it be undermined by this kindof foolishness.

    Which is a damn shamed because by all accounts McChrystal is a competent commander if not very media savvy. Why one of his handlers didn’t prevent this fiasco is beyond me.

    Much as I hate to agree with Koz on anything; if this could be turned into an excuse to dump the Afghanistan Theater then that’d be some sweet lemonade to make out of this lemon. I doubt it though, Obama cares what the hawks squawk for some indecipherable reason and he’s controversy shy so I expect he’ll just keep muddling on through.

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      • @Chris Dierkes, I just can’t get over how f’in stupid the guy is to have himself quoted to this effect in Rolling Stone.

        This.

        I talked to a handful of my buds who worked on base and asked them. They said that this guy is either trying to resign, trying to get fired, trying to make sure he never gets promoted ever again, or asking for the most shit assignment the military has to offer.

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      • @Chris Dierkes, Maybe it’s harsh Chris, but I’m just calling it like I see it. I can’t think, off the top of my head, when Obama has put any capital on the line for something controversial. He’s gone into the political fray only reluctantly and as a last resort. I used to worry that Obama’s hope-change-above it all schtick was just an act. Now I’m beginning to fear it’s something worse; that he actually believes that nonsense.

        And I say that as a supporter, albeit an unenthusiastic one .

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  4. I agree on the merits of *this* story, though it’s by no means innocuous. But I also think the London affair was a very serious breach that got papered over and excused because they were in the middle of trying to launch the strategy. That was a warning that itself had preceding indications that should have raised eyebrows. If this incident was the only one of its kind in his record, it would be mistake to can him. But this is simply undeniable confirmation that the guy is completely out of control, and incompetent in information management in an information war. He has to go if only to protect the prestige of the office of president, but for other reasons as well, not least that he’s losing the war.

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    • @Michael Drew, That said, I’ve predicted on Twitter he’s not going anywhere. I’m looking pretty bad on that at this point, I’d say.

      I will say, if this is a resignation-by-journalist, it has to be one of the least flattering ones in the history of the play. Totally dishonorable and beneath him. I don’t believe he is base in that way. I just think he’s stuck in 1972.

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    • @Michael Drew, Bottom line, I just don’t see how this can stand as an example of conduct, or even of the right of mind for soldiers whose lives are in danger every moment in a war zone. Not that such thoughts aren’t inevitable. But you can’t have the CINC highlighting and promoting them, not to mention willingly giving the public appearance of insubordination, and damn near if not quite undertaking the actual act. Can you? I guess I’m wavering on how I see this one — because of how deliberate it seems it had to have been.

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  5. I thought our nearly documented Muslim president was going to bring the boys home from Iraq and win Afganistan…whas up wid dat. My guess about the general is that he really doesn’t want to take orders from a rather dim witted south side Chicago thug. He should’ve resigned, then gone on TV, or something, and spoken the truth of things…this shit’s just like Vietnam and Korea, all over again. One gets tired of it. But I wouldn’t mind seeing a heavily armed combat team headed down Pennsylvania Ave. in the direction of the White HOuse.

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  6. It’s not just a matter of bad politics (don’t badmouth the President when you are a political appointee of any stripe), or bad interoffice politics (don’t badmouth your boss).

    It’s actually an offense for which you shall face a court-martial (not “can face a court martial”, discretionary, but “shall face a court martial”). Now, in practice, you can probably dodge this sort of thing like you can dodge a lot of military protocol, but not when you’re the front cover of Rolling Stone.

    If you want State (or, less generally, the CIC) to maintain credibility, McChrystal’s resignation ought to be refused. And then he probably should face a court martial under Article 88 of the UCMJ, get a dishonorable discharge, and lose his pension.

    Will that happen? Probably not. But if you’re going to get in a pissing match with the President over leadership, you’ve pretty much put the guy into the position where he can’t win unless he *does* cut you down and destroy you utterly. Ruthless, so not really Barry’s style.

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    • “It’s actually an offense for which you shall face a court-martial (not “can face a court martial”, discretionary, but “shall face a court martial”). Now, in practice, you can probably dodge this sort of thing like you can dodge a lot of military protocol, but not when you’re the front cover of Rolling Stone.”

      Yeah, that doesn’t quite fly.

      http://www.frumforum.com/mcchrystal-did-no-wrong

      I think it’s an exaggeration to say he did nothing wrong, but the contempt/insubordination provisions of the UCMJ are intended to police offhand remarks. Among other things good luck on finding a officer jury to convict on that.

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      • @Koz,

        Gee, Frum, the first person I saw that blogged about McChrystal violating 88 wasn’t a liberal, he’s pretty staunchly nothing of the sort.

        The point isn’t whether or not he ought to be convicted, mind you, it’s whether or not it qualifies as grounds to try him for it (insubordination). And I really don’t see how Frum can claim offhand that it doesn’t.

        Of course, I’m not a lawyer, and I’m certainly not a military lawyer.

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        • First of all, it wasn’t Frum but a contibutor to his website.

          Whether there’s grounds enough for him to be charged is probably not very important. It’s very unlikely to pursue a marginal court-martial against a general. The President needs generals, and he can relieve them of command any time he wants without a court-martial.

          The real problem is that McChrystal has torn away yet another layer of plausible deniability for Obama supporters .

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  7. Sometimes, people speak against their conscious reason, because deep in their souls a cry for help manages to escape.

    And who wouldn’t do so, being stuck in what is essentially a hopeless fight to save a heroin-infested hellhole from itself, a futile quest for a blurring goal…

    What was the goal again?
    Find Osama bin Laden?
    Stop the Taliban (who are now trying to take over Pakistan instead)?
    Prove to the world that America is not a “quitter”?

    If you want to prove something to the world, put a man on Mars. The way this war is going, sending people to Mars is less expensive.

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    • @A.R.Yngve, Exactly!

      What does “victory” look like?

      I don’t think I’ve yet received a genuine answer to this question. At what point will we be able to declare victory and go home?

      Sometimes people point out that we still have bases in Germany and Japan. Fair enough… at what point will our operations in Afghanistan be functionally identical to Germany or Japan?

      I have yet to see a description of what “Victory” will look like.

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      • @Jaybird, well let’s go way back to the triggering event. The situation was that the Taliban government of Afghanistan was harboring enemeis of the US, al Qa-ida. Fine. Pakhtunwali provides for a repsonse in cases like this – attacks on the hosts harboring the enemies. Punitive raids, reprisals, that kind of thing. Obviously the US couldn’t do that under its own laws and Euroepan legal norms. So we fabricated another one of our “make the world safe for democracy” adventures to sell these repisals to to ourselves. It turned into liberating Afghan women and nation building and building democracy and a whole bunch of other irrelevancies.

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      • @Jaybird
        Have an Afghan government that has the power to sustain itself and keep Al Qaeda out of the country, and that opposes letting Al Qaeda back into the country.

        I don’t know if such a victory is achievable or not, but cold-blooded realpolitik suggests that IF we stay, that should be the limit of our goals. We can’t force an entire nation to treat women decently if they don’t want to.

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        • @Katherine, it strikes me that we could achieve those goals with minimal effort:

          1) All poppy growth is henceforth legal. Hook up the government as middleman to Bayer and Glaxosmithklein and sell them as much opium as they can. The government gets a piece of the money to divvy (bribe) as they see fit.

          2) The US government screws a gold plated plaque to the desk of the president. The plaque will read in the appropriate language: “Pretty sweet deal, huh? Don’t make us care enough to come back.”

          This strikes me as fairly sustainable and requires little effort/presence on the part of the military.

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    • @A.R.Yngve,

      > Sometimes, people speak against their conscious
      > reason, because deep in their souls a cry for
      > help manages to escape.

      Yeah, that’s true. That gets you some sympathy. Not so much when you’re leading people in combat. This isn’t Jerry Maguire writing a missive about how the company ought to change direction and getting canned, for Christ’s sake.

      > And who wouldn’t do so…

      I’m not saying the guy’s not a sympathetic character. But let’s not bullshit, here.

      He’s a four star general, a career military man. This isn’t a frustrated private who enlisted to qualify for the GI bill and didn’t realize how over his head he was going to be. This is a freaking special ops general. If he doesn’t have the balls to stand up in front of the President and refuse a command that he believes is doomed to failure… but instead accepts that command and then does something like this… that’s just messed up.

      (And let’s be clear, he honestly believes that we can win in Afghanistan, so don’t adopt him as a fellow member of the, “What the hell are we doing there in the first place” brigade)

      Refuse the command. Resign your commission – you’ve done more than your twenty – and go on the talk show circuit, and blast the Administration. I’ve got *no* problem with that. Resigning in protest and talking about the President being a dumbass is fine by me. Lots of military personnel resigned under GWB. That’s their prerogative.

      Hell, talking crap about the Joint Chiefs when you’re in a meeting with your subordinates to build camaraderie, that’s fine too.

      Guardiano’s being an idiot. This isn’t anything about “informing the public”. McChrystal didn’t sit down with a reporter and discuss the strategic shortcomings of the ROE, or the limitations of American military strategy in Iraq or Afghanistan, or logistics, or even tie any of the above directly to specific policies that he believes should be changed. *That* would be “informing the public”. Heck, taking a bunch of top secret documents with you when you resign and handing those over because you believe that they’d show the public the war is unwinnable, that would be *commendable* and I’d be the first to back the guy when he got called up on charges.

      What did “the public” learn from this? They learned that the top general in Afghanistan doesn’t like the civilian command, and generally holds them in contempt. That doesn’t tell you anything about *why*, or even give you credible evidence to judge whether or not the general is correct in his personal feelings.

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  8. Other people have pointed out how silly it is to demand his head. Having spent the last week or so with my nose buried in an old (1813) unpublished travel journal, I am, as always, struck by how overblown the reaction is and how much it misses the point. Okay, so the guy should apologize. Then could we discuss whether or not there’s any hope of a not-bad outcome in Afghanistan?

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  9. The deed is done. I wonder if there had been other stuff going on in the media if this story would have gotten buried?

    Like an apocalyptic sized oil spill, the worse unemployement rate in half of the workforce’s experience, possibly on the brink of another war with (pick one: North Korea, Iran, Gaza) and the victorious (and twice as often drawing) American team in Vuvuzelapoluza 2010? :)

    This would be hard to bury in any case, because the current media environment already had Afghanistan on the radar screen as a somewhat greater blip than it had been for long time now (and the way that Iraq is no longer on that radar screen). Plus every story about the story had the picture of Obama talking to McCrystal on Air Force One a few months ago which reminded everyone (esp those immersed in the media environment) that the now former COMISAF commader had already been allegedly warned once to rein it in.

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