25 June 2010

Too Many Cooks in the Afghani Kitchen

7/8/10 issue of Rolling Stone
Like so many others, I've been fascinated by the recent drama generated by a Rolling Stone article that led to the very public firing of General Stanley McChrystal.  I've read reactions online, heard some of the talking heads on TV and watched President Barack Obama's press conference announcing his acceptance of General McChrystal's resignation.  Until just now, I had not actually read the article responsible for the debacle.


Firstly, I think some serious accolades need to be thrown at writer Michael Hastings.  The war in Afghanistan has turned into Heroes for too many Americans: it's something that used to be all the rage on TV and now they've moved on.  Only, Heroes has been cancelled, freeing its cast members to pursue more lucrative movie roles while our men and women in uniform continue to try to find something positive to justify the ever-increasing death toll there.  Hastings's article was not intended to undermine the operations in effect, or to embarrass General McChrystal.  Rather, it reads like what it was clearly intended to be: a frank discussion of what's really happening in Afghanistan.


Perhaps what is so startling about Hastings's work is not even its own content...but the complete absence of anything else approaching its level of honesty in any other media report.  Hastings paints a picture of Gen. McChrystal as something of a character out of The Men Who Stare at Goats, combining unconventional computer nerds with gung-ho grunts to not merely kill enemy combatants, but to revolutionize Afghan society itself.  A lofty goal, to be sure, but one that perhaps was out of everyone's hands once President George W. Bush justified his invasion of Iraq on the grounds that our national interests rested on the democratization of extremist societies in the Middle East.  What's good for the goose is good for the gander, and so it seems that what's going on in Afghanistan--controversial as it is--is a terribly unfortunate by-product of its own spin-off war.


General McChrystal himself comes off in the article mostly the way I think most of us suspect--or even wish--our top military leaders really are.  This is a guy who has actively participated in night raids in Afghanistan, an exercise that places in harm's way every one of the soldiers who take out on patrol.  I can still remember feeling a sense of admiration for the few managers I had at Cracker Barrel who would actually bus tables and help run the grill when we needed an extra set of hands; I can only imagine how it must have been for low-ranking infantry to stand side by side with their top commander with every chance that one or both of them may not come back alive.

President Obama and General McChrystal in a photograph from the White House Flickr Photostream
The real embarrassment of Hastings's article isn't the general himself, but rather the lack of organized leadership in Afghanistan.  Diplomats, photo-op seeking Congressmen and of course the dubious Afghan President Karzai all complicate what is at best an undesirable situation.  If President Obama is serious about prosecuting this war to victory--and I believe he is--then General McChrystal must not be the only one to lose his job after the publication of Hastings's article.  Ambassador Karl Eickenberry, whose scathing report on Gen. McChrystal's operations was leaked to The New York Times for what appears to have been solely to get the general's goat, should get the next ax that falls.  Likewise, if Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke is half as temperamental and meddling as he is characterized in Hastings's article, then he, too, is a liability who must be removed.

From the White House Flickr Photostream
Whether the counterinsurgency doctrine Gen. McChrystal has espoused will actually succeed remains to be seen.  The absence of a better plan, coupled with the aforementioned philosophical corner President Bush painted us into after going into Iraq, makes COIN our best chance to not only salvage this bloody war, but perhaps actually succeed in leaving Afghanistan a better place than we found it.  I believe President Obama is committed to that end, and I have great hopes that he and General David Petraeus will find a way to succeed.  If they're to learn anything of value from Michael Hastings and General McChrystal, it is obvious that their first step must be a complete reorganization of our diplomatic presence in Afghanistan.

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