Michael Hastings, author of the Rolling Stone article, relates a visit to a platoon where General McChrystal is scheduled to visit the next day to attend a memorial service for a comrade lost in combat:
Almost all of the soldiers here have been on repeated combat tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and have seen some of the worst fighting of both wars. But they are especially angered by Ingram’s death. His commanders had repeatedly requested permission to tear down the house where Ingram was killed, noting that it was often used as a combat position by the Taliban. But due to McChrystal’s new restrictions to avoid upsetting civilians, the request had been denied. “These were abandoned houses,” fumes Staff Sgt. Kennith Hicks. “Nobody was coming back to live in them.”
One soldier shows me the list of new regulations the platoon was given. “Patrol only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourselves with lethal force,” the laminated card reads. For a soldier who has traveled halfway around the world to fight, that’s like telling a cop he should only patrol in areas where he knows he won’t have to make arrests.
Aside from a policy that may be failing before it is even fully implemented, the Rolling Stone article shows that there is a dysfunctional relationship at the top of the chain of command between the military and civilians in the State Department.
It’s no secret that Afghan Ambassador Karl Eikenberry has had the long knives out for McChrystal from the beginning. This intramural tiff between the former three-star general ambassador and the former head of the Joint Special Operations Command goes back to counterinsurgency operations carried out by McChrystal’s Special Forces in Afghanistan, to which Eikenberry, who was commander at the time, objected strenuously. They have been at odds ever since.
The question is: was the president aware of this debilitating feud at the top level of his Afghanistan team? If he was, why in God’s name didn’t he do anything about it?
For months Obama has tolerated deep divisions between his military and civilian aides over how to implement the counterinsurgency strategy he announced last December. The divide has made it practically impossible to fashion a coherent politico-military plan, led to frequent disputes over tactics and contributed to a sharp deterioration in the administration’s relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
One person who will be sad to see McChrystal relieved is Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who called the former commander a person of “great integrity.”
“The president believes that Gen. McChrystal is the best commander that NATO and coalition forces have had in Afghanistan over the past nine years,” spokesman Waheed Omar said. Omar said McChrystal has worked closely with Karzai since he took command last year and that “lots of things have improved.”
Karzai’s half brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, who many American officials believe to be a major figure in the drug trade in Afghanistan and who stands accused of vote rigging in the last presidential election, is even more effusive in his praise of McChrystal:
“He is the first good thing to happen to Afghanistan,” said Karzai’s half brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, considered the most powerful figure in Kandahar. “He is active. He is honest. He does a good job, a lot of positive things have happened since he has come.”
Nevertheless, the move to replace McChrystal with Petraeus is a no-brainer. Only the general credited with turning around the situation in Iraq possessed the gravitas and public relations value that would allow the president to put this incident behind him quickly while maintaining the military’s confidence in the mission.
Several questions arise with the ascension of Petraeus, not the least of which relates to the president’s withdrawal timetable. Will Petraeus be granted additional time to get organized, survey the situation, and place his imprint on operations? Or will Obama stick to his July 2011 deadline for withdrawing American forces? How many of McChrystal’s people will Petraeus keep on? What about the military’s relationship with civilians in the State Department?
Petraeus is a brave soldier. He has taken on a thankless task with very little chance that he can forge a more satisfying conclusion to our efforts in Afghanistan than McChrystal would have been able — especially given the limited time mandated by the president’s withdrawal timetable. President Obama is, in effect, using Petraeus’ stellar reputation to cover a messy PR problem while failing to deal with the underlying tensions between the State Department and the military in Afghanistan.
Ambassadors Eikenberry and Holbrooke have come under heavy criticism for their disdain for President Karzai and their handling of reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both men crossed swords with General McChrystal over civilian casualties, as well as over the way the war was being conducted in the provinces. It begs the question why the president didn’t replace Eikenberry, who has been particularly bitter in his comments about McChrystal.
Did McChrystal deserve his fate? If Petraeus could be considered the brains behind the Iraq surge, McChrystal was certainly the sharp end of the stick. His Special Forces troops beat down the Iraqi insurgency and al-Qaeda with terrifying precision and speed. They turned counterinsurgency conventional wisdom on its head while pacifying large tracts of Iraq that had resisted previous efforts to control.
But his disrespect of civilians made keeping him in command an impossibility. To his credit, McChrystal recognized that and jumped before he was pushed. A sad end to the career of a great leader.