City of Brass

Lt. General Stanley McChrystal is being summoned to Washington DC today because of a pending article in Rolling Stone magazine where he and his aides trashed the civilian leadership of the war, including Obama, Biden, and others. McChrystal has apologized, but the political buzz is that Obama will fire him. I think this would be a huge mistake.

Keep in mind that McChrystal was hired – and his predecessor fired – by Obama precisely because “new thinking” was needed for the war in Afghanistan. McChrystal is *the* expert on counterinsurgency (COIN) and his basic premise in Afghanistan is that the strategy needs to shift away from killing bad guys to protecting civilians. The McChrystal report – which I covered in detail earlier – made the succinct observation that “Earn the support of the people and the war is won, regardless of how many militants are killed or captured.” President Obama’s increased reliance on targeted killings by unmanned drones actually undermines that strategy – but the drones themselves are a symptom of the political reality that even the increased troops sent by Obama (as per McChrystal’s request) are probably not enough. Since the United States has neither the political nor the material capital to send hundreds of thousands of troops (not to mention the horrible Imperial Occupation optics of such a policy), some balance must be achieved.

But McChrystal’s primary critique is that the balance is too aggressive rather than not enough. In this, he has to fight both the administration and even his own soldiers. Some of the targets of McChrystal’s critiques, like Biden and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, were opposed to the troop surge in the first place, disavowing COIN. The Administration wants to draw troops down, partly for political reasons (with the 2010 elections approaching). That would necessarily mean more drones, more collateral damage, and thus fewer hearts and minds. But McChrystal also has to curb the instincts of his troops, as evidenced by some of these revealing quotes from the Rolling Stone article (excerpted by Halperin at TIME):

In response to soldiers thinking the United States is losing
“Strength is leading when you just don’t want to lead. You’re leading by example. That’s what we do. Particularly when it’s really, really, hard, and it hurts inside.

On the controversial military strategy known as counterinsurgency (COIN):
“Winning hearts and minds in COIN is a coldblooded thing. The Russians killed 1 million Afghans, and that didn’t work.”

To soldiers, on the momentum of the insurgency:
“In this area, we’ve not made progress, probably. You have to show strength here, you have to use fire. What I’m telling you is, fire costs you. What do you want to do? You want to wipe the population out here and resettle it?

To soldiers complaining that unarmed insurgents are assumed to be civilians:
That’s the way this game is. It’s complex. I can’t just decide: It’s shirts and skins, and we’ll kill all the shirts.

In another excerpt from the Rolling Stone article, you get a taste of the attitude of the troops towards McChrystal’s strategy:

One soldier shows me the list of new regulations the platoon was given. “Patrol only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourselves with lethal force,” the laminated card reads. For a soldier who has traveled halfway around the world to fight, that’s like telling a cop he should only patrol in areas where he knows he won’t have to make arrests. “Does that make any f-king sense?” Pfc. Jared Pautsch. “We should just drop a f-king bomb on this place. You sit and ask yourself:  What are we doing here?”

Simple question, simple answer: you’re winning instead of losing, soldier. And that’s the problem – McChrystal advocates restraint, and that is being spun by the usual armchair warmonger crowd as “unreasonable restrictions on rules of engagement”. Hence, conservative pundits are itching for Obama to fire McChrystal, hoping for a return to the kicking-ass, burn-the-village aggressive posture that was the signature of the neglected Afghan campaign under the Bush Administration. But that old strategy was a failure because it could not define victory by any metric other than body counts. Hearts and minds are harder to measure, and McChrystal seems to be the only one who understands that. Obama needs to listen to Hillary Clinton and just “if Stan wants it, give him what he needs.” Or withdraw from Afghanistan entirely.


Related: In a way, the number of troops is a red herring – the real problem is that we don’t have enough civilians in Afghanistan.

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