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McChrystal's fatal error
General's real mistake has been pursuing the objective given to him, says Robert Grenier.
Last Modified: 23 Jun 2010 09:50
Has General McChrystal's downfall been believing the US can win in Afghanistan? [GALLO/GETTY]

"When you're dealing with the press, you're playing with a loaded gun." So said my first ambassador many years ago, and truer words were never spoken.

General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, would surely have learned that long ago, and the unhappy results of his previous intemperate public remarks - which once earned him a personal, one-on-one rebuke from Barack Obama, the US president - should have served to underscore the lesson.

Apparently, they did not.

This time, it would appear, the self-inflicted wound suffered as a result of the unseemly candour of the general and his staff in the presence of the Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings is going to prove mortal.

But in the midst of the current Washington feeding frenzy, let us pause for a little perspective.

Righteous caterwauling

Given the tenor of the reaction all around Washington - from the White House, to congress, to the department of defence, to the punditocracy - one would have thought the indiscretions of McChrystal and his staff constituted rank insubordination, a refusal to accept the sacrosanct American doctrine of civilian control of the military.

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When read in context, though, beyond the din of self-righteous caterwauling, they hardly qualify as anything of the kind.

The "devastating" article in Rolling Stone is just the command-level analogue of a typical journalistic "embed" with a deployed military unit.

In such circumstances, the hosts cannot help but reveal more of the truth than might seem prudent later on; but the senior-level bickering unearthed by this embed reveal much less regarding the downward trajectory of the Afghan counterinsurgency war than have any number of embeds conducted down-range.

The difference between those embeds and this one is that while they both point to aspects of a failing policy, the damage in McChrystal's case is political, and for that he will surely pay with the loss of his command.

This whole foolish spectacle will take its inevitable course. But as it does, we might hope - just hope - that it provides the occasion for the combined military and civilian authors of the US strategy currently being pursued in Afghanistan to actually discuss the substantive issues which underlie the petty sniping about to claim McChrystal's career.

For the fact of the matter is that, given the disconnect between the military leadership in Afghanistan and its political masters in Washington, serious recriminations were due to start, and sooner rather than later.

Defeating the Taliban

Ironically, just as the scandal was beginning to brew and before either of us knew anything about it, a former colleague and I were bemoaning the state of affairs in Afghanistan.

"Do you suppose there's anyone in command at this point," he said, "who doesn't know this strategy can't work?"

With a moment's thought, I replied that my guess - and it was only that - was that the civilian leadership in Washington has known, or at least strongly suspected, that its strategy was unworkable from the time the new policy was announced by the president on December 1, 2009.

by robert grenier

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Why else would they put it on an impossibly short timeline, and announce a date for its essential abandonment 18 months in advance? 

The fault of General McChrystal and the military leadership in Afghanistan, on the other hand, is that they honestly believe they can succeed, and are thinking - and acting - accordingly.

One is put in mind of the press accounts of the first briefing provided by General McChrystal at the start of the latest Afghan policy review. When on the first presentation slide McChrystal indicated that his objective was to "defeat the Taliban," the statement was greeted with shocked silence by the civilians viewing it at the Washington end.

It apparently had not occurred to them that the general, at that late date, might still be pursuing the objective given to him by his president not six months before.

The fact that he might still believe now in what he is doing, and might be a little resentful of those who fail to back the stated policy of their own administration, ought not to come as a great surprise to those who lack McChrystal's forthrightness.

Make no mistake: I believe that the strategy championed by General McChrystal is deeply, indeed fatally, flawed.

Despite my profound personal respect for him, I view his confidence that he can successfully conduct an effective counterinsurgency campaign, on a massive scale, acting as a proxy for a hopelessly compromised and inept government, and do so with conventional military forces ill-suited to the task, as disastrously misplaced.

McChrystal's strategy, however, has been formally accepted by the administration - at least nominally - even if they refuse to grant him the time clearly required to carry it out on its own terms.

If the president and those around him do not have faith in the efficacy of current policy, as they manifestly do not, they should at least have the grace to say so, given the lives, resources, and prestige at stake, and move to an alternative course.

If they do not have a fall-back plan, as it appears they do not, they should develop it. 

I have expressed my own views as to what that fall-back plan should look like, and surely will again. But as the administration considers where to go from here, it ought to steal a page from the man whose perhaps naïve candor is about to be punished, and try a little simple honesty.

Robert Grenier was the CIA's chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of the CIA's counter-terrorism centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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