The Problem Is Bigger than McChrystal

Following up on my post from last night, I encourage you to read this news analysis by C.J. Chivers in the New York Times. Chivers focuses on the inherent tension within counterinsurgency doctrine that too many COIN advocates have neglected or ignored. The Rolling Stone article touches on these themes, but much of that story gets lost in the narrative surrounding McChrystal and his staff. Chivers is not so easily distracted. Here are a few excerpts:

…the counterinsurgency doctrine [which] has assumed an almost unchallenged supremacy in the ranks of the American military’s career officers…rests on core assumptions, including that using lethal force against an insurgency intermingled with a civilian population is often counterproductive.

Since General McChrystal assumed command, he has been a central face and salesman of this idea, and he has applied it to warfare in a tangible way: by further tightening rules guiding the use of Western firepower – airstrikes and guided rocket attacks, artillery barrages and even mortar fire – to support troops on the ground.

[…]

The rules have shifted risks from Afghan civilians to Western combatants. They have earned praise in many circles, hailed as a much needed corrective to looser practices that since 2001 killed or maimed many Afghan civilians and undermined support for the American-led war.

But the new rules have also come with costs, including a perception now frequently heard among troops that the effort to limit risks to civilians has swung too far, and endangers the lives of Afghan and Western soldiers caught in firefights with insurgents who need not observe any rules at all.

Chivers notes the extraordinary measures that our troops take to justify the use of superior firepower and readily available air cover, “including decisions by patrol leaders to have fellow soldiers move briefly out into the open to draw fire once aircraft arrive, so the pilots might be cleared to participate in the fight.”

“Moments like those,” Chivers continues,

bring into sharp relief the grand puzzle faced by any outside general trying to wage war in Afghanistan. An American counterinsurgency campaign seeks support from at least two publics – the Afghan and the American. Efforts to satisfy one can undermine support in the other.

As for Gen. McChrystal, no one knows if President Obama will accept his tendered resignation. I’d guess the odds are 50-50. I think that he should accept it, in part because Gen. McChrystal has bumped up against civilian authorities before, and in part because the principle of civilian control over the military is a bedrock principle of American governance.

But if the president decides to keep Gen. McChrystal in Afghanistan, he should ask retired general/ambassador Karl Eikenberry to resign. It is obvious that the celebrated unity of effort that characterized David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker’s tenure in Iraq does not exist (and apparently has never existed) in Afghanistan.

I’m not really advocating that, in part because I sense that Eikenberry harbors some skepticism about the mission in Afghanistan that is warranted. But if Obama chooses to retain McChrystal, he is merely affirming what many have known for a long time: the leading civilian official in Afghanistan, our ambassador, has no authority. How Eikenberry could continue under those circumstances is beyond me.

One last thing on COIN, Afghanistan, and people getting fired: COIN requires a credible local partner. We don’t have one in Hamid Karzai. But the United States can’t fire him. Our troops are fighting a war, according to rules of engagement that effectively nullify our technological advantages over the enemy, in order to boost support for a government over which we have no formal control, and apparently little leverage. That isn’t an indictment of McChrystal or Eikenberry so much as it is an indictment of the entire national security establishment that has chosen to deepen and expand this already-too-long war.

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