06 October 2009

The Case of the Uppity General

A lot of hand-wringing has taken place regarding General McChrystal's controversial comments regarding policy in Afghanistan. I'll take the uncontroversial view that being governed by a military junta might not be a good thing as Eugene Robinson explains:

How to proceed in Afghanistan will be among the most difficult and fateful decisions that President Obama ever makes. But he's the one who has to decide, not his generals. The men with the stars on their shoulders -- and I say this with enormous respect for their patriotism and service -- need to shut up and salute.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is entitled to his opinion about the best way forward. But he has no business conducting a public campaign to build support for his preferred option, which is to send tens of thousands more troops into a country once called the "graveyard of empires."
Some folks on the left say that the top general in Afghanistan only sees things through his "own narrow experience", which probably means another General Betrayus type ad from Moveon.org is coming soon to a newspaper near you. But taking the position that elected leaders should be responsible over the military does not categorically place you with the Code Pink crowd. However, in any chain-of-command, you hope and pray that those appointed over you are competent, have their priorities straight, and have your interests at heart. And, the President devoting his time and political capital to the 2016 Olympics, command-and-control economics, and not to the rapidly worsening Afghanistan situation doesn't inspire a lot of confidence.


hire said...

Obama just think about how to win the war..

The Constitutional Insurgent said...

Ultimately, whether or not one supports escalation or withdrawal....challenging the assumptions about Afghanistan, in a reasoned and logical manner, is the correct course of action.

lela said...

As usual, Lt Nixon, you're analysis is right on the money!

Elizabeth Miller said...

It's too bad General McChrystal, or someone like him, didn't take this approach during the last administration.

Though, that's not to say that I don't agree with the general proposition that 'Shut up and salute' (at least, in public) is usually a wise course of action...unless there is some sort of inherent problem with the in-private chain of command...which, by the way, I don't think is the case here.

Grung_e_Gene said...

Man, damn Presidents! I remember another general who had the temerity to suggest more troops were needed! That darn Eric Shinseki... It was illuminating to read how he was attacked by Right leaning persons for things like introducing the Beret to the entire Army.

Rank and job title don't matter in political debates, adherence to partisan dogma is the only way to ensure one side or the other doesn't attack you.

MAS1916 said...

Obama got himself into a real box over Afghanistan.

After excoriating the Bush administration for failing to fight the real war in Afghanistan, now that it is Obama's turn to do just that, He is wavering. The Prez has no good options here, but needs to make a difficult choice - which is why he has failed to do so in several months. Is this leadership? Hardly!


rangeragainstwar said...

This is not about Obama but rather about America.
There is a solid course of action that can solve the problem-get the hell out of these stupid , phony wars. This won't happen because politics is driving the train.
As for Generals- I prefer to listen to those with Combat Infy Badges on their chests which Casey/McC/Pet lack.EIB's are not all that impressive.

Anonymous said...

...well-stated, Nixon. I am on pins and needles as to what course of action will be decided...egads.

Ms. Kiyum said...

Badmouthing the Olympics? Why do you hate America, LT?

Bradley said...

Lets be honest here people, who is better to lead the over all direction of the war? the President that has years of experience as a community organizer? or a General with years of experience studying tactics/logistics and how to fight this sort of war?

Nixon said...

I don't think Right-wingers were the only ones criticizing Shinseki for the fated beret decision.

Army Sergeant said...

It's true. I took 9 years to forgive Shinseki for the beret, and I'm an IVAW member, usually not considered right wing. Except sometimes by people further left than I am.

Elizabeth Miller said...

How could I forget about Shinseki? He was one of the good guys...told people what they needed to know as opposed to what they wanted to hear.

But, who, in the uniformed leadership, was doing that - publicly - in, say...2006?

In any event, I don't think McChrystal will get his troops. The recent elections and ongoing aftermath pretty much sealed that fate. Well, that and the fact that the number of troops needed for what General McChrystal apparently wants to do would be counted in the hundreds of thousands, not tens of thousands. And, unless I am mistaken, that is well beyond the number that US/NATO are willing - much less able - to provide.

On top of all that, it seems the ANP - not to mention the ANA - are just not destined to be a functional police force. And, the government in Kabul, regardless of which personality heads it up, is similarly dysfunctional. It is highly doubtful that a central government in Kabul will ever have the capacity to exert full authority over the rest of the country in any meaningful way.

When you add it all up, we don't exactly have a sound basis on which to mount a successful COIN strategy in Afghanistan.

The Sniper said...

I think McChrystal was getting set up to take the blame for failure in Afghanistan and that's why his troop requests and assessment were made public. He was covering his ass and all things considered that was a smart move.

COIN can work in Afghanistan given the right resources... but you have to get Pakistan in line too. The porous border in Waziristan is the biggest threat to a successful COIN policy in A-stan.

I agree with what Elizabeth Miller said, I also don't think that GEN McChrystal will get the troops he needs so it's almost a moot point to discuss it. I also agree that the ANP is pretty much useless. It's rife with graft, corruption, and Taliban sympathizers. I take issue, however, at her assessment of the ANA. I've fought with those guys over there and even though they're not on par with US soldiers in training, they make up for it in sheer guts and badassitude.

COIN could work there, but Obama won't send the troops because he doesn't want to offend his far left base. He’s not a strong enough leader to be a wartime president so he’ll let the forces in Afghanistan take a pounding until it looks too bleak to repair and then he’ll pull them out and blame Bush. I don’t hold the previous administration faultless for the situation in A-stan, but if you’re the relief pitcher don’t bitch about the previous pitcher blowing the game for you.

Elizabeth Miller said...


I think we may be reading too much into the so-called controversy over public remarks and reports by General McChrystal. And, the media is focusing on one small part of McChrystal's report that they are trumping up as being controversial. I don't think for a second that the General is "being set up to take the blame for failure in Afghanistan". The fact of the matter is that everyone knows that mistakes in strategy and tactics were made here and that, despite it all, the US, British and Canadian troops and other NATO forces have served their countries very well and honourably. We just all need to figure out what is the best course to take now.

My comment about the ANA was not meant to be an assessment of the professionalism of the individuals who make up the national army or of their ability to take the fight to the enemy. I was just thinking out loud about whether an Afghan National Army is the best entity to secure the country...in the same way that I question whether a strong central government in Kabul will ever have the capacity to exert its authority throughout the country. A strong central governement in Afghanistan has virtually no precedent and I'm just wondering if we need to be thinking about more traditional Afghan forms of governance and a security apparatus that has its center of power closer to the local and regional level.

I have to disagree with your suggestion that Obama-Biden will not send more troops because of a desire not to offend their far left base. I think Obama-Biden are about as devoted to their far left so-called base as you or I am...that is to say, not very much!

As for whether a COIN strategy can work in Afghanistan...I'm not convinced that it has a snowball's chance in Hell of working and that, I think, is why McChrystal won't get his troops.

I'm thinking that a shift from COIN to a counter-terrorism strategy is probably the only workable solution to secure and stabilize Afghanistan, with a decidedly smaller and more focused military footprint. But, I don't think a simple counter-terrorism approach alone will be anywhere near sufficient to meet the essential US/NATO objectives of eliminating the threat of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan/Pakistan and of preventing their re-emergence at some point down the road.

Maybe what we need here is a counter-terrorism strategy in combination with a muscular political and diplomatic surge under the auspices of the UN - not to engage in nation-building, per se, but to promote and support an Afghan-led effort to reach political reconciliation that respects the traditional Afghan power structures and involves the participation of ALL Afghans, including the Pashtun majority and moderate elements of the Taliban.

I really don't see any other way out of this mess. If the new stratey, whatever it may be, remains dependent on a strong centralized government in Kabul that is modeled on western democracies and devoid of promoting an Afghan-led process for national political reconciliation, then I would have to say that US/NATO forces might just as well pack up and begin the withdrawal now.

Joe said...

It's kind of funny how any sort of "national police" service us usually full of corrupt assholes (IP, ANP) but the national army service is usually full of quality people (IA, ANA).

+Stryker BCTs
+Calling the Surge before it was called

-GI Bill fuck ups
-Black beret

Call it a wash?

The Sniper said...

Elizabeth, when you talk about "a counter-terrorism strategy... with a decidedly smaller and more focused military footprint" are you referring to Biden's magic ninja plan? If so, you really really need to take a much deeper (and much more personal) look at the situation there. You don't win with "smaller". That is not a sound military option... just ask the guys at Combat Outpost Keating... well, the ones that survived.

By the way, why do you think COIN has a snowballs chance in hell of working in A-stan. Just curious.

The Sniper said...

Oh, and using the term "moderate Taliban" is like saying "moderate sociopathic, misogynistic, religiously fanatical despots”.

Elizabeth Miller said...


VP Biden has not announced his plan for Afghanistan/Pakistan...yet! But you can be sure that when he does, it won't look at all like what you've been reading about in the media. You can bet the proverbial farm on that...even if it's in Iowa!

As for a COIN strategy in Afghanistan...it doesn't have a chance for the simple reason that there are not enough troops on the planet to make a successful mission out of what General McChrystal wants to do. He thinks 40,000 more troops will do it. Who is he kidding?

Elizabeth Miller said...


My thinking on all of this has evolved dramatically over the course of the last several months and I have come to the conclusion that a COIN strategy in Afghanistan cannot work.

I base that on the fact that there is little chance that a strong central government in Kabul will ever develop the capacity to exert its authority over all of Afghanistan.

Whatever strategy is decided upon, if it remains dependent on a strong central government in Kabul, modeled on western democracies, then it will fail.

How can you mount a successful COIN mission if you don't have a government that a majority of the people support. For example, the Afghan people, I am told, are more afraid of the ANP than they are of the Taliban! That does not bode well.

The Sniper said...

You were told wrong. When I was there they were coming up to us and thanking us for being there... and that was the women. Have you ever heard of night letters? If you haven't, look them up. If you have, then you know that the loacals are a helluva lot more scared of the Taliban. Hell, the Taliban is now infiltrating the ANP... no, they have been for years. If there is any fear of the ANP, it's because they know that they're in cahoots with the Taliban.

You're still not addressing the "how the hall are we going to make less troops be more effective" question. We had to shut down flight ops at Bagram for the better part of ten days when I was over there because the Taliban were hitting our convoys. How do we keep our supply trains open (in mountains, no less) with less people to protect them?

As for the [strong central government having no precedent] check out the Duranni Empire. Long time ago, but there none the less.

And yes, we do have 100,000 troops to put on the ground if need be.
And by the way, the Taliban (most of whom are Pashtun) don't give a rat's ass about diplomacy. They listen to overwhelming firepower and then only if the mood strikes them before a bullet does.

You can't flood the country with troops like the Russians did, but you can't stay at current strength or less and expect a win.

Elizabeth Miller said...


Well, I was told that the Afghan people fear the ANP more that the Taliban by someone who is in Afghanistan now. Could it be that the situation has worsened since you were there? Though, I don't doubt that the people responded well to you - I have seen news footage of those interactions between the Afghan people and US military personnel and it is always very heartening to see!

I didn't say anything about 'less' troops but I really think the key right now is not the troop levels but what the mission will be that the troops are tasked to implement.

I don't have an aversion to COIN operations, per se...it's just that we don't seem to have in place the conditions in Afghanistan that would allow such a strategy to be successful. The most important factor here is that the current structure of the government in Kabul is dysfunctional, for all intents and purposes.

I also don't think that a counterterrorism strategy alone will be sufficient to meet the essential US/NATO objectives. But, if it is combined with a muscular political diplomatic effort to promote a process of negotiations that includes all Afghan groups - including those Taliban who are not ideologically wedded to al-Qaeda - then we may have a chance for sustainable stability in Afghanistan that could meet US/NATO objectives.

If what you say is true and there is no such animal as a 'moderate' Taliban, then I would suggest that we have a massive mess on our hands with essentially no way out, no matter how many troops are surged into the country. And, if you ask me, General McChrystal isn't asking for near enough troops to do what he proposes be done.

I guess we'll just have to wait until President Obama makes a decision as to what the mission in Afghanistan will be going forward. Let's hope he makes that decision sooner rather than later!

The Sniper said...

Elizabeth, here's a great story
from McClatchy about what senior intel analysts and military types are saying. I agree that the government is corrupt and that needs to get changed, but capitulating in Afghanistan is simply not an option and not sending more troops is basically that. It is a mess, but just because it's a mess doesn't mean that we don't have a duty to clean it up. If we don't, then things will get much, much worse for everyone... in the world.

I've spent a lot of time in Central Asia, not just in Afghanistan with a gun, but in other Central Asian countries (think "Borat" for the majority of the time) in U.S. Embassies, and what I've gleaned from that time (spanning ten years) is that they're ripe for the picking for al Qaeda types... all they need is a base country where they can freely move. Once Afghanistan falls (and it will if we don't do something), they'll take total control over Pakistan and then it gets really ugly.

I hope I'm dead wrong on all counts and I hope that you can someday say "I told you so." I really do.

Elizabeth Miller said...

Thanks very much for that link - I hadn't seen that report. It was an extremely interesting read.

My first reaction was that the intelligence, diplomatic and military officials who spoke anonymously to McClatchy were on a mission, of sorts, to expose (in their misguided view) and to cast dispersions on the president and his national security team as being overly focused on public opinion and prone to basing the decisions they have to make on political expediency.

If this is an accurate reading, then I couldn't disagree more with these officials, though I would not presume to question their motivations. As I see it, the national security team knows very well that no foreign policy can be long sustained without the informed consent of the American people, no matter how warranted or meritorious that policy may be. And, that is why, whatever decisions the president makes on how to proceed in Afghanistan, he and his team (particularly the vice president) will do everything in their power to level with the American people and make them understand why the new policy direction and regional strategy deserves their full support.

I don't believe for a second that public opinion is a driving force in making such critically important decisions that would involve a comprehensive regional strategy for Afghanistan/Pakistan and beyond. Call me a cockeyed optimist. :)

However, I couldn't agree more with these officials when they suggest that neither a COIN nor a counter-terrorism approach alone can offer much hope for meeting US/NATO objectives in the region.

I've been thinking for a while now that what we need here is a grand regional strategy that may be a combination of counter-terrorism tactics in Afghanistan/Pakistan, focused on al-Qaeda and Taliban who are ideologically wedded to the global aspirations of al-Qaeda, in conjuction with an equally focused set of diplomatic/political tracks aimed at promoting political reconciliation at the national and local levels. This is going to take decades of attention and the actors in the region need to know that the US is in it for the very long haul. Of course, this kind of effort will also involve the UN and NATO partners and other major and regional powers.

I have to say that the credibility of the officials in this report is weakened when they speak of such an unlikely scenario as withdrawal as being under consideration. No one with at least half a pea brain is even contemplating that, much less thinking out loud about it with a McClatchy reporter. But, when these officials start comparing the deliberations underway by President Obama's national security team with what happened - or, did not happen, as the case may be - within the previous administration, then they lose most of the credibility they had left!

And, with all due respect to the president's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, I doubt that he has the necessary background knowledge and analytical prowess to speak in-depth about these matters. And so, I wouldn't put much stock into how he explains these complicated deliberations to the White House press corps, most of whom know far less about these issues than Gibbs.

Finally, this report implies that Vice President Biden is advocating for a simple and limited counter-terrorism approach that ignores the rise of Islamist extremism and the dire regional consequences of a strategic policy failure. This rings utterly hollow as there is no one on the president's national security team who understands the valid concerns of these US officials, and the need to avert them, in a more comprehensive way than Vice President Biden.

By the way, I would never say, 'I told you so'! But, I sure hope things don't turn out the way you described they might.

And, I hope LT doesn't start thinking about imposing a word-limit policy around here. :)

The Sniper said...

I think I'll have to call you a cockeyed optimist. ;o)

We may have both read the same article, but se certainly didn't get the same message. McClatchy generally tends to get their military reporting dead on... more so than say the Washington Post or CNN.

As for "[Obama] and his team (particularly the vice president) will do everything in their power to level with the American people and make them understand why the new policy direction and regional strategy deserves their full support." Is that why 13,000 troops suddenly appeared in Afghanistan without a huge to-do from the White House? You would think that 26,000 new boots on the ground might be something to mention.

Elizabeth Miller said...

Well, don't read too much into the first part of my comment about the gist of the article...it was just my first impression after reading the first part of it.

Like I said, I agree with much of what these US officials are saying.

As for the 13,000 "troops", as I understand it they are not combat troops. According to a Guardian report, they are mostly "engineers, medical staff, intelligence officers and military police"...maybe the MPs can remedy the situation with the ANP...who knows.

In any event, I think this deployment is just part and parcel of an overall shift in strategy and focus that Obama spoke about during the campaign.

What worries me now are reports that the British government have been advised by the Obama administration that the US is on the verge of committing a "substantial" number of more combat troops to Afghanistan. Of course, these reports are mute about what the new strategy will be but, I find these reports very distressing, nevertheless.