The Case for McChrystal: An Insider Speaks

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I was early among those arguing that, after the Rolling Stone article, General Stanley McChrystal really had to go. This, I argued, was a matter of civilian-military relations, rather than necessarily to do with his conduct of the war.

Recently I spoke with a US-policy insider who argued that (notwithstanding the "war is bigger than any one person" principle) McChrystal's depature would turn out to be be a huge setback for the U.S. This was the case even though he had been replaced by America's most celebrated current military leader, David Petraeus. The elements of this argument, from least to most compelling:

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1) Relationship with Karzai. According to this analysis, the president of Afghanistan likes and trusts McChrystal -- but is on bad terms with virtually every other prominent US civilian or military official. This sounds like Karzai's problem rather than ours, but: OK, point noted.

2) Rules of Engagement. Within the US military, the most controversial part of the McChrystal-blessed COIN (counter-insurgency) strategy is that U.S. troops should expose themselves to more risk, as part of minimizing "collateral damage" to civilians in Afghanistan. The point, obviously, is not to endanger the U.S. troops; it is to protect the local civilians in all ways. McChrystal, himself a famously fit and fearless Special Forces warrior, had the best chance of selling this policy to troops. Civilians and an "intellectual" commander like Petraeus would be less effective.

3) The Timetable. To me, this is the big issue. My insider-source said: "McChrystal had committed himself to this bargain. Last December, Obama agreed to a buildup. This December there would be a reality check. If the policy wasn't working then" -- by this account -- "McChrystal would agree that it was time to back out. The strategy would have been given a chance, and if it wasn't working, Obama would be able to clean house -- military and civilian officials alike -- and begin a withdrawal." Now, by this analysis, all commitments are off. Petraeus has no comparable commitment to the December re-assessment, and he is for all practical purposes un-fireable. So there is no natural break-point for the U.S. commitment ahead. My source, by the way, had been hopeful last year that the commitment to Afghanistan would "work"; he no longer feels that way.

I present this as an informed argument rather than a view I am endorsing in all details. Point #3, convincing on its face, suggests that the whole situation may be a tragedy far beyond its effects on McChrystal. And it's a reminder why civilians and the press should hold Obama to his original deadline. The strategy is bigger than one man, after all.

Update: Stipulating, as before, that (a) I am not an expert of Afghanistan and (b) my instinct has been to curtail rather than expand America's commitment there, I note this by Hugh Gusterson in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists yesterday:

Counterinsurgency forces stand little chance of defeating the insurgents without large numbers of troops, but the presence of foreign troops inevitably excites nationalist hostility from the local population; the more foreign troops there are, the more hostility there will be. Also, the more troops there are, the more military casualties there will be, and this undermines support for counterinsurgency at home--as we are now seeing in the UK and the U.S.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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