McChrystal, the Presidency and Afghanistan

5 MINS READJun 23, 2010 | 10:56 GMT
An article leaked late Monday from the upcoming issue of Rolling Stone magazine contains some rather frank comments by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, and his senior staff about the competence of various personalities in U.S. President Barack Obama's administration. One member of McChrystal's staff has already resigned as a result, and McChrystal has issued apologies to several higher-ups, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates. McChrystal also has been recalled to Washington for meetings both at the White House and the Pentagon on Wednesday. There have been splits between America's civilian and military leadership before. The most dramatic separation involved President Harry Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. MacArthur held the public imagination for his dominating role in the Pacific theater during World War II, yet he felt — and expressed — contempt for Truman and his predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, both his lawful Commander-in-Chief. In doing so, MacArthur demonstrated complete disregard for the chain of command as well as the fundamental U.S.-held principle of civilian control of the military. Equally importantly, he refused to recognize and subordinate his military strategy for Korea to the larger political strategy of the early Cold War period. Truman had no choice but to relieve MacArthur, as he did in April 1951. Harboring his own presidential ambitions, MacArthur mistakenly believed his reputation as a soldier would bring down Truman instead. In fact, MacArthur never gained any political power and found himself isolated in his retirement. It paints a picture of a leader who does not view his command and its challenges as a piece of the problem but as the whole of the problem. The issue of the Rolling Stone article is certainly not on that level. McChrystal is no MacArthur. He certainly hasn't captured the public imagination as MacArthur did, nor does he have anything like MacArthur's track record of inappropriate statements about the administration under which he served. But the prospect of a military commander prosecuting the Afghan war with disregard — if not contempt — for political control would present the same problem. Though he has begun to make apologies for his Rolling Stone interview with writer Michael Hastings, McChrystal has yet to deny the content of the story. That content portrays McChrystal and his inner circle as basing their view of Washington personalities on whatever resources they can get out of those personalities. It is as if the new American strategy is a stroke of military genius from U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) chief Gen. David Petraeus on down, and that managing allies and navigating the bureaucracy in Washington is nothing more than a nuisance and distraction. MacArthur was not the first American military leader to feel this way, nor will McChrystal be the last. Gen. William Westmoreland, as head of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, fell into this trap in Vietnam, as did Gen. George Patton in the aftermath of World War II, when he thought postwar relations with the Soviet Union somehow fell under his purview. STRATFOR has no position on McChrystal's personality. What the fallout of the Rolling Stone article comes down to, we believe, is that the senior leadership in Afghanistan and CENTCOM appears to view the campaign as a self-evidently urgent fight and the American priority of the day. Such a view leaves the Afghan campaign unconnected to the broader strategic interests of the United States. It paints a picture of a leader who does not view his command and its challenges as a piece of the problem but as the whole of the problem, requiring all available resources and no civilian interference, even from the Commander-in-Chief. According to this view, anyone who questions total commitment to Afghanistan simply does not grasp what is at stake. In this way there is indeed a parallel with MacArthur, who could not understand that Korea could not be treated as the center of the Cold War but only as a subordinate theater. Without such an understanding, MacArthur could not grasp the fact that his operational desire to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese ran counter to the United States' grand strategy. Not only is the world bigger than Afghanistan, but the Afghan war is also much bigger than the counterinsurgency strategy championed by McChrystal and Petraeus. At its core, the Afghan war is unwinnable by force of arms no matter how concentrated the focus is on counterinsurgency. Success — if that is even the right word — requires a political deal with forces that have the ability to actually rule the territory. It is becoming inconveniently and painfully obvious that the government in Kabul and the security forces under its command are not that force. The Taliban may not be that force either, but it is certainly an extremely powerful counterweight that is very aware of the U.S. timetable and the trajectory of American domestic and allied support. It also believes it is winning the war. Getting the Taliban to agree to a sort of a co-dominion over Afghanistan from this position is no small task. And that effort must be tempered by its prospects for success and other very real challenges the United States faces around the world.

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