As this article went to press, Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the US forces in Afghanistan was preparing a letter of resignation. Following the publication of a profile on McChrystal in Rolling Stone (written by The Majalla contributor Michael Hastings) controversy has engulfed the general who was once considered the ideal Spartan warrior. The publication entitled “The Runaway General” demonstrated the deep divide that pervades the US civil government and McChrystal’s forces, with multiple references questioning whether the war in Afghanistan can even be won. Today President Obama will decide whether the remarks merit McChrystal’s sacking—even though the US is knee-deep in the Afghan conflict and the deadline the administration set itself for beginning troop withdrawal is fast approaching.
Although speculation on Obama’s decision abounds, a great division exists with regards to what constitutes a correct decision in this situation. Wall Street Journal's Eliot Cohen has been in favor of letting McChrystal go in response to his violation of the norms of civilian military relations. Likewise Foreign Policy’s Tom Ricks has predicted McChrystal will be let go. Others, including Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, argue that McChrystal’s ill-advised remarks should not overshadow the credit he deserves for putting the right strategy in place to turn around a failing war effort—although it should be noted that at the core of the problem presented by Hastings’ article is whether or not the counterinsurgency strategy implemented by McChrystal is in actuality effective.
While the upcoming hours may make or break General McChrystal’s career, they will also greatly impact the future of America’s efforts in Afghanistan. Obama will have to be able to assert his authority without further alienating the military if he aims to undo the image-destruction his foreign policy team has undergone in the last few days. Even if Obama does not fire McChrystal, there have been leaks by the Pentagon suggesting that General McChrystal will resign—a decision which will also put tremendous weight on the US’s war strategy in Afghanistan.
General McChrystal’s tenure has marked a change in the US’s course of action in Afghanistan, turning this conflict into the focus of US military operations. McChrystal, who has been at the helm for a year now, has marked the US’s move away from conventional military strategy to one that is more compatible with the asymmetric dimension that comes with fighting local insurgents. This change of pace has come with the much-discussed surge of US forces in Afghanistan.
Although McChrystal’s past is clouded in mystery, he has been all but blunt with regards to what he considers the necessary measures for success in Afghanistan. “What we need to do is to correct some of the ways we operated in the past. We need to show the kind of resolve and the imagination to do this smarter and to do it right…We'll win it when we connect with enough of the Afghan people, when they have finally said: ‘Enough.’”
McChrystal has focused the war on the “hearts and minds” strategy, which to him has translated in the halting of indiscriminate air strikes, and the increase of troops out on patrol. To McChrystal, security comes from the people. Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, McChrystal clarified his intentions for the increase of troops, explaining that to secure the people and win their support; the US may have to sacrifice greater short-term risks for long-term benefits.
“This can mean patrolling without armored vehicles or even flak jackets…If we respond with overwhelming fire to limited small arms fire from a compound we do protect ourselves but we destroy their livelihood... Even when we run around in armored vehicles or personal armor we often send an unintended message that we're more important than they are. If we've got more armor but in reality the people are at more risk they have to question the degree to which we really are protecting them.”
Showing the civilian population in Afghanistan that the US is on their side has become the foundation of his strategy, and he has been careful not to sugarcoat the importance of these tactics lest Afghanistan turn into what he calls “Chaosistan.”
Unfortunately, General McChrystal's bluntness has recently tarnished the image the Obama administration has of him. Last fall at a conference in London McChrystal strongly criticized the counterterrorism strategy that had been advocated by Vice President Biden, calling it short sighted. This occasion led to the first public scolding of McChrystal by the Obama administration.
Interestingly, in Hastings’ article McChrystal refers to this faux-pas and makes it clear that since then he has been cautious about what he says in public. “McChrystal wonders aloud what Biden question he might get today, and how he should respond. ‘I never know what's going to pop out until I'm up there, that's the problem.’” Despite his awareness of the role of the media on his position, he follows that remark by the following exchange:
“‘Are you asking about Vice President Biden?’ McChrystal says with a laugh. ‘Who's that? Biden?’ suggests a top adviser. ‘Did you say: Bite Me?’”
Although turning your boss’ name into a kindergarten insult hardly sounds like a reason for putting a war strategy under risk, it is not the words so much that have created this media relations nightmare, but what they imply. There is a deep disrespect prevalent in the military for civilian government, who they believe misunderstands their needs and misunderstands the war. Hastings’ article explains that after their first encounter McChrystal thought Obama was “uncomfortable and intimidated” and an advisor to McChrystal noted that the meeting felt like a photo op. “Obama clearly didn't know anything about him, who he was. Here's the guy who's going to run his [expletive] war, but he didn't seem very engaged. The boss was pretty disappointed.” Interestingly, here “the boss” is not the Commander in Chief of the United States, but McChrystal.
Despite the prevalent media attention McChrystal and the recent article have received, few have explicitly asked what is behind this division between the military and the government. A brief skim of Hastings’ article provides great insight into the military culture that affects the ability of soldiers to relate to civilian commanders and respect their authority. Soldiers in Afghanistan, according to Hastings, do not understand restraint. Even McChrystal’s relationship and bond to them appears more important than his responsibility as a commander. Although group formation is a fundamental necessity in the development of an effective military, since it creates a mentality in which soldiers fight for one another’s lives. That same mentality does much to undo the ability of a civilian, with no war experience, who is not actively willing to die for a subordinate, to win the trust of a military commander, or any member of the military for that matter.
McChrystal, who was practically born into the military, has clearly internalized the military culture that is dependent on contradictory notions of independence and subordination to authority. In fact, Hastings’ account of McChrystal’s youth at West Point speaks of his ability to “misbehave” but only up to the point where he would not be expelled. This habit has become second nature to him, having repeated similar stunts along the way of his military career, although this last step may be the one that he miscalculated.
Prior to the most recent scandal however, McChrystal embodied the ideal American soldier. Having been born into a military family, graduating from West Point, and later participating in most of the US armed incursions in the Middle East, McChrystal rose to the top, albeit in an unconventional way. His postings at Harvard and the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as his tenure as the commander of the Green Beret team in 1979 and 1980, have given McChrystal the reputation of an intellectual warrior.
After fighting in the first Gulf War, McChrystal became the commanding general of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in 2003, and overall commander in 2006. This body, which is responsible for Special Forces missions abroad, successfully captured Saddam Hussein and killed the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
His duties as head of the JSOC included overseeing the elite Delta Force and units of the Navy Seals, although he spent most of his time in Iraq commanding secret missions. In his capacity as JSOC commander, McChrystal developed close relationships with the CIA and other military and intelligence organizations. As a result the majority of details about his career are classified (for years the Pentagon even refused to acknowledge the existence of the JSOC).
Yet the current scandal surrounding McChrystal is not the only controversy that has tarnished his image as the ideal Spartan general. The first incident involved the death of the most high-profile soldier in the American Army. Former American football star Pat Tillman died at the hands of friendly fire, but this was not the story that the Pentagon chose to release. Instead, the American public was told that he had died charging a hill and was killed by Islamist forces. Six investigations and two congressional hearings later, it was revealed that McChrystal promoted the lie by providing inaccurate information when recommending Tillman for a medal.
The second stain on McChrystal’s reputation concerns his subordinates and whether they were involved in the systematic abuse of Iraqi detainees, as reported by the Human Rights Watch report No Blood No Foul. Although it has not been proven that McChrystal ordered the abuse, or was present during its implementation, as the commander of the JSOC he oversaw the conduct of those who carried out those violations and many believe that this makes him responsible for their behavior.
Despite these controversies, in the eyes of the American public, McChrystal was until very recently known more for his Chuck Norris-like qualities than for lying to the American public about the death of their most famous soldier in order to create a convenient war narrative, or his possible implication in serious human rights abuses. Instead, most articles written about him in Western media described him as an austere general. Stories abound as to how many miles a day he ran, and how much he slept with numbers ranging from 12 miles to 4 hours respectively. Surely, McChrystal is sleeping even less these days.
McChrystal is deeply respected by fellow officers on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have described him as a warrior scholar, and admired the discipline he has implemented into one of the most regimented institutions in place. In addition to instituting the 6:30 a.m. meeting among the top 25 officers he commands, he has also banned alcohol, Burger King and Pizza Hut from American bases. McChrystal's austerity had turned him into a legend in the military. Nevertheless, the US likes to see legends fall as much as they like to see them rise, and perhaps this is why, after two controversies were largely ignored by the media (and during his congressional appointment hearings), McChrystal is finally receiving the type of scrutiny a commander in his position ought to be subjected to.
That being said, although the public scrutiny of a military leader is paramount to the democratic execution of military efforts, in the eyes of this writer, there has not been adequate discussion regarding the responsibility of the media in the context of war. Interesting as Hastings’ article is, the danger McChrystal’s childish language posed before it was made public was minimal. Today it makes the Obama administration look inexperienced and divided. In a war that journalists recognize is partly fought on TV and in print, it is worth questioning whether such leaks are necessary and whether they will not do more to endanger the lives of Afghan civilians and American soldiers in the days to come.