Permissible Arms

McChrystal and the Gang

Posted in afghanistan, counterinsurgency, united states, us military by Karaka on 22 June 2010

As the internet continues to spew forth oil commentary regarding General McChrystal’s running off at the mouth, I find that more and more I’m coming around to the idea that President Obama should choose to retain McChrystal in Afghanistan. I refuse to believe–as someone who does find virtue in a counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan, a strategy that will not work over months but over years–that disrupting the chain of command, even for a fiasco as belly-floppingly painful as this, will not damage our strategy.

A lot of the commentary, particularly in the throes of SWJ comments, revolves around the idea that “no uniform is irreplaceable,” which is certainly true. But I don’t care about a uniform. I care about the plan, the mission, the strategy, the over-arching thing that we’re doing there, and that is bigger than any one man. It’s bigger than the President.

On the one hand, perhaps replacing McChrystal would buy the administration some time to extend the deadline on Afghanistan. “Here’s a replacement,” they could say, “so we need more time on the clock.” But frankly, my confidence in Mr. Please Everybody in that regard wanes with each passing day. Would the Obama administration actually take that brass ring? Doubtful. Maintaining a deadline, even a soft one, gives Obama some credibility with his detractors on both the left and the right.

But retaining McChrystal is the best thing for these counterinsurgency practices. As the man who largely advocated for them to the President, as the man who has been the boots on the ground for the better part of this first year of work, and as one of only a handful up upper-echelon US officials who can claim a good relationship with Karzai and his government, McChrystal should remain in position. It would be heartbreaking to lose the bigger picture because an old white dude flapped his jaw to the wrong reporter.

According to Spencer’s report on the White House press briefing earlier this morning, it’s hardly clear which way the wind is blowing at the WH.

None of that sounds like a White House that’s ready to scrap its counterinsurgency strategy in the year to go before it begins to shift to a heavier focus on training Afghan forces and withdrawing troops. But McChrystal will have to reiterate his commitment tomorrow to working with the team that, in many ways, signed onto a strategy he himself largely convinced the president to support. “This is bigger than anybody on the military or the civilian side,” Gibbs said. Translation: McChrystal can go or stay, but the strategy has been set. And that may be the greatest irony of the entire McChrystal imbroglio.

And the vocally vocal Senate is as split as the blogosphere on “should he stay or should he go,” with Sen. McCain, Lieberman, and Graham pressing for ousting, and Sens. Levin and Kerry less predisposed to smiting from the Hill.

This was filed only hours before McChrystal is reported to have sent in his resignation (via Joe Klein and some dude from Twitter). That doesn’t mean he’s out of the game. It’s certainly the only reasonable politic move he could make, given the circumstances. But I’m hoping that Obama chooses not to accept the resignation; that instead he demands a higher level of service and imbues Afghanistan with the gravitas it deserves. It’s a serious game we’re playing here, with the well-being of a dozen nations involved. If the President wants to show the American people the war he has backed since March 2009 is worth the effort, he should wipe aside the juvenile bullshit and tell McChrystal to get his ass focused on the mission. Like the Commander in Chief ought to.


7 Responses

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  1. Mike Few said, on 22 June 2010 at 14:37

    Man, I spend one day with no cell phone coverage, and the sky falls down. I’m just catching up on all the news, but I must say that you’ve had the best analysis. Particularly the last line.

    “If the President wants to show the American people the war he has backed since March 2009 is worth the effort, he should wipe aside the juvenile bullshit and tell McChrystal to get his ass focused on the mission. Like the Commander in Chief ought to.”

    Good advice.

    • Karaka said, on 22 June 2010 at 14:42

      Thanks Mike! Good luck catching up–it’s like newly recycled thoughts are published on the internet every microsecond.

      I’m already tired of how McChrystal’s mouthiness is being framed by many, many people as evidence that counterinsurgency doesn’t work, or is ineffective, or that this means we should take on a new strategy. Just because a kid gets snarky over breakfast doesn’t mean he can’t do a paper route; this is effectively the same thing, with higher stakes and greater consequences.

  2. Gunslinger said, on 22 June 2010 at 15:06

    While there is a lot of grey area on the insubordination or stupidity argument (neither of which I’m looking for in an ISAF commander), I question how much retaining him helps the counterinsurgency effort. It seems to have been mentioned a few times today, but military plans never hinge on one person – there is a succession of command. The other, and more important, aspect to this line of discussion is that McChrystal would lose all of his Political clout. If he stays, he’ll have almost no allies and no ability to create consensus. I don’t see how that helps the coin fight. He’ll just be able to manage the current plan, not lead it, and not influence any changes that may be required. I just don’t see how his staying is good for anyone.

    • Karaka said, on 22 June 2010 at 15:16

      It seems to me that he’s losing political face here at home, but would he really lose face with NATO/ISAF? Or with his counterparts in Afghanistan/Pakistan? I’m not convinced that’s so. They’re the people he has to deal with every day. As for folks like Eikenberry and Holbrooke, it’s clear that none of them had a great fondness for each other whether or not the RS story broke; I don’t know that it would make a great deal of difference if they’re forced to continue to work together.

      Who would he be losing clout from? Where would he be losing allies from? His sphere contains the forces he commands and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and I don’t think they are as lost as you might think they are.

      If you’re talking allies from within the military ranks, well, you might have a point. But he wouldn’t be the first guy to come back from a fall and get his subordinates into line.

  3. […] 1. Karaka Pend at Permissible Arms – calm and reasonable […]

  4. Mike Few said, on 22 June 2010 at 17:38

    Both points from Gunslinger and Karaka are valid IMO. As y’all probably know, I’d prefer a more FID-centric plan for A’stan, and I was suprised that LTG McC was picked as the commander. However, his ability to effect organizational change (Rangers in the 90s and JSOC during these wars) is legendary. I’m just suprised that his staff allowed a reporter to hang out with them at a bar. Note to self- never let talk to a reporter after drinking :).

    • Karaka said, on 22 June 2010 at 22:57

      I’m beginning to suspect the advice should be “just don’t talk to reporters”!

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