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McChrystal Ball

May 12, 2009

In replacing General David McKiernan with Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates didn't merely signal a change of strategy but a change in attitude. Having led the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq from 2006 to 2008, General McChrystal is said to be among the military's new breed emphasizing counterinsurgency strategies and tactics. And as he showed in proclaiming the defeat of Al Qaeda in Iraq in October 2007, he's apparently willing to make life uncomfortable for his civilian leadership.
As the Washington Post noted, in elevating McChrystal, Gates became the first civilian to replace a field commander in wartime since Harry Truman sacked Douglas MacArthur in 1951. While McKiernan was viewed by some in the Pentagon analysts as "cautious and conventionally minded," General McChrystal apparently embodies the sense of urgency and the experience in unconventional warfare the Obama administration was looking for in leading the expanded effort in Afghanistan:

McChrystal is the director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff. From 2006 to August 2008, he was the forward commander of the U.S. military's secretive Joint Special Operations Command, responsible for capturing or killing high-level leaders of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Importantly, McChrystal enjoys the backing of Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen and CENTCOM commander David Petraeus who said he "fully supports" the change. Important, because in the fall of 2007, McChrystal spoke out about the over-hyped threat from Al Qaeda in Iraq, an episode which put him at odds with his chain of command.
Throughout 2007, President Bush and his allies routinely exaggerated the risk posed by AQI to bolster its open-end commitment in Iraq. As the Washington Monthly's Andrew Tilghman wrote convincingly in "The Myth of Al Qaeda in Iraq," the false perpetuation of Al Qaeda's responsibility for the carnage served the purposes of Prime Minister Maliki and President Bush. Alex Rossmiller, who served as a DoD intelligence officer, highlighted the peril of assigning responsibility for attacks to Al Qaeda. "It was kind of a running joke in our office," said. "We would sarcastically refer to everybody as al-Qaeda."
And in October 2007, General McChrystal agreed. As Karen de Young and Thomas Ricks detailed, the drop-off in Al Qaeda attacks and the improving alliances with Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province prompted some American military leaders to advocate a "declaration of victory," among them McChrystal:

Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, head of the Joint Special Operations Command's operations in Iraq, is the chief promoter of a victory declaration and believes that AQI has been all but eliminated, the military intelligence official said. But Adm. William J. Fallon, the chief of U.S. Central Command, which oversees Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, is urging restraint, the official said. The military intelligence official, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity about Iraq assessments and strategy.
Senior U.S. commanders on the ground, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. forces in Iraq, have long complained that Central Command, along with the CIA, is too negative in its analyses. On this issue, however, Petraeus agrees with Fallon, the military intelligence official said

But as de Young and Rick suggested, the controversy was less one of intelligence assessments or military strategy, but instead politics. "Such a declaration," they write, "could fuel criticism that the Iraq conflict has become a civil war in which U.S. combat forces should not be involved." But despite crossing Petraeus then, General McChrystal enjoyed his support before and since.
Which is not to suggest that McChrystal's record is enblemished or his strategy infallible. Recent attacks suggest the remains of AQI are still capable of producing carnage in Iraq. Time's Joe Klein frets that "McKiernan's caution may have been the right impulse" about overlaying the Iraq counterinsurgency blueprint onto the dramatically different - and complicated - ethnic and religious realities on the ground in Afghanistan. And as Time noted elsewhere, a March 2007 report faulted General McChrystal for his handling of the 2004 friendly fire death of Pat Tillman.
For good or ill, Barack Obama and Bob Gates have their man with a mission in Afghanistan.
UPDATE: The AP is reporting that Pat Tillman's parents want General McChrystal's record reviewed. While Mrs. Tillman called the review, "imperative," her husband Pat Tillman Sr. said, "I do believe that guy participated in a falsified homicide investigation." Meanwhile, Marc Ambinder has more on McChrystal's off-the-books Special Ops past and his close relationship with Petraeus.

One comment on “McChrystal Ball”

  1. Turning from bombing one group of unfortunates to another does not serve my idea of 'progress' - unless destruction is the objective. Last fall the UN said 30% of Afghans were at risk of starvation. Indeed. Their cash crop had been incinerated and they had no money to buy food. Interestingly, neither their NATO allies nor the Taliban had interest in that scenario.
    Among aid agencies, the American effort is singularly pathetic : almost absurdly so. This, of course, means that when disaster strikes in the nature of fire from the sky...the window of opportunity is wasted. is very interesting.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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