The McChrystal affair, General Petraeus, and Counter-Insurgency

Everyone seems in general agreement that, whatever your political stance, General McChrystal should definitely have been relieved, and that as a full general he was setting an alarming precedent and violating a number of policies viz-a-viz relations between civilian and military authorities, as well as between a general officer and his commander-in-chief.  (I leave out for the moment the earlier “situations” with which his name was involved, and which already put his name under quite a pall in many quarters of the country.)  His pending replacement, General Petraeus, is already being hailed in some quarters as a wunderkind, soon to be the greatest thing since sliced bread.  I’m not buying that, for a number of reasons I’m not getting into right now, but mostly connected with the debates that I’ve heard from chunks of the officer corps over counter-insurgency and what precisely happened pre-, during, and post-Surge.

But there are other issues which can be gleaned from a variety of articles.  One interesting one is from Gareth Porter, at counterpunch.org (try to ignore the 9/11 conspiracy stuff at the top of the page), published on the 17th; it works with The New York Times article I mentioned in the previous post.  And John Nagl’s appearance at the end of the piece highlights something which is comparatively overlooked in the furor about McChrystal’s remarks: that everyone in this situation is closely invested with the overall strategic and tactical conduct of the war, and that what is really being fought out here is national security strategy and election positions.  The various insults to our French allies and Vice President Biden, while certainly reprehensible and destabilizing to civilian-military relationships, have been quickly dealt with, and are not the bedrock issues to most folk in the administration or the Army high command; rather, the issues are the implementation of a controversial strategy, and the political fall-out and opportunities this offers.  The President expressed the command issues perfectly well yesterday, as given by the Associated Press:

Obama hit several grace notes about McChrystal and his service after their meeting, saying he made the decision to sack him “with considerable regret.” And yet, he said the job in Afghanistan cannot be done now under McChrystal’s leadership, asserting that the critical remarks from the general and his inner circle in Rolling Stone displayed conduct that doesn’t live up to the standards for a command-level officer.

“I welcome debate among my team, but I won’t tolerate division,” Obama said. He had delivered that same message — that there must be no more backbiting — to his full war cabinet in a Situation Room session, said a senior administration official.

Yet the Afghanistan strategy, the build up of troops, and with these much of  brilliant but controversial population-first counter-insurgency approach (strongly advocated by John Nagl and Petraeus), are what are really at stake here.  Feeling seems divided as to whether McChrystal’s firing will prompt the administration to review the Afghan strategy, and the effective demotion of Petraeus to operational commander doesn’t really tell us one way or another–at least, that’s what I gather from this article in PoliticoBrian Montopoli at CBS thinks that moving Petraeus into command signals a continuation of the old strategy, which has obviously been having issues in that little thing called “effectiveness.”

Again, the bedrock issues here are the effectiveness of the counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan–justly distracting as this (soon to be retired?) controversial general may be.  Amy Davidson, who writes the “Close Read” column for The New Yorker, really says it best in yesterday’s column “What’s Wrong With McChrystal?”, and, following Hastings’ piece, gets at the larger issue:

But enough of that: the danger of the Rollling Stone article is that one can be distracted by the admittedly irresistible puerility of it all. But this is the line that matters: “I get COIN. I get all that,” a soldier tells Hastings. “But we’re fucking losing this thing.”

Let’s be aware of the subtleties of the issues, and remember that politics and media are (by nature and modern technology) much like an old-fashioned shell game: surprisingly deceptive when in the heat of the moment we take our eyes from the prize.

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