Fall of Stanley McChrystal

2010-06-29 00:00

GENERAL Stanley McChrystal deserved to be fired as the United States commander in Afghanistan, because he and his staff were openly contemptuous of their civilian superiors. It’s a popular attitude among the dimmer sort of military officers, but for a theatre commander to tolerate and even encourage it among his own senior officers and advisers is reckless and stupid. Such a man is not fit for command.

But why was McChrystal in a state of perpetual rage against President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, and practically every other civilian authority he had contact with? Could it be because they don’t really believe that the United States can win a decisive military victory in Afghanistan?

Eikenberry almost certainly doesn’t. Late last year, when McChrystal was pressing for more U.S. troops to be sent to Afghanistan, the ambassador wrote to the White House (in a cable leaked to the New York Times) saying that “Sending additional forces will delay the day when Afghans will take over, and make it difficult, if not impossible, to bring our people home on a reasonable timetable”.

McChrystal’s “proposed counterinsurgency strategy assumes an Afghan political leadership that is both able to take responsibility and to exert sovereignty in the furtherance of our goal,” Eikenberry wrote. “Yet [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defence, governance or development.

“[Karzai] and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further,” Eikenberry continued. “They assume we covet their territory for a never-ending ‘war on terror’ and for military bases to use against surrounding powers.” So don’t send any more U.S. troops, he concluded.

There have been no similar leaks giving us the personal views of Biden, but he has publicly supported Obama’s target of beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July, 2011. McChrystal, like any general who believes his task is to win the war, saw that deadline as a terrible mistake.

Senator John McCain, still the senior statesman in the grown- up wing of the Republican Party, shares McChrystal’s view on this. “We can’t tell the enemy when we’re leaving,” said McCain — because if they know when we’re leaving, they’ll just wait for us to go. No doubt General David Petraeus, who has been abruptly pulled out of his (more senior) job to replace McChrystal, thinks the same.

But what if Obama, Biden and Eikenberry really think (a) that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable, and (b) that it isn’t important for the U.S. to win it anyway? What if they privately hope that the July 2011 date for the start of the withdrawal will persuade the Taliban to hold back for the next year, which would make it look like the U.S. was winning the war?

Then the American troops could go home with the appearance of victory, leaving the Afghans to sort themselves out. No matter who is running Afghanistan two or three years later — and it wouldn’t necessarily be the Taliban — it’s highly unlikely that hordes of Afghans would “follow the Americans home” and blow them up.

If Obama and friends understand this, then they will have realised that the best way to end the Afghan war is simply (as they used to say about Vietnam) to “declare a victory and leave”. But they cannot say this out loud in the U.S., where most of the population believes the mantra that says the “war on terror” must be won in the hills of Afghanistan.

It would take more time and political capital than Obama has to persuade the U.S. public that this is arrant nonsense (although it is). So if he really wants to extract American troops from an unwinnable and unnecessary war, then he is condemned to do so by subterfuge. He must engineer an apparent but temporary military success in Afghanistan, do a quick handover to Karzai & Co., and get out while the going’s good.

Obama’s best hope of creating an apparent military success is to announce the withdrawal of U.S. troops in the near future. If the Taliban understand his implicit message to them, they will let him have a temporary “victory” in order to get him out.

But if that’s what Obama’s up to, then it’s understandable that McChrystal was deeply frustrated (although that doesn’t excuse his behaviour). Petraeus will be equally frustrated.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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