Despite the media focus on President Obama’s announcement of troop withdrawals this year and next, Obama’s speech says far less about the administration’s Afghanistan strategy than three other notable (and largely overlooked) recent developments. First, over the weekend, Secretary Gates acknowledged that the U.S. is in preliminary talks with members of the Taliban in an attempt to effect political reconciliation. On the same day, Ambassador Eikenberry leveled perhaps the most forceful U.S.
The principle of civilian control forms the foundation of the American system of civil-military relations, offering assurance that the nation’s very powerful armed forces and its very influential officer corps pose no danger to our democracy. That’s the theory at least, the one that gets printed in civics books and peddled to the plain folk out in Peoria. Reality turns out to be considerably more complicated.
In September 1991, the president of Afghanistan, Muhammad Najibullah, a former communist secret police chief turned Islamic nationalist, delivered an emotional speech to the Afghan parliament. Najibullah knew the era of foreign intervention in Afghanistan over which he had presided was ending. The Soviet Union had pulled back from direct combat. Radical Islamist rebels covertly backed by Pakistan controlled much of the countryside. Before parliament, Najibullah begged for national unity.
Many good people who have never fought in a war find something appealing in America’s willingness to take more casualties in order to spare innocent civilian lives. For those, like me, who have been in combat, the choices at hand look somewhat different. Consider the following likely scenario. A platoon of Marines is patrolling an area in Afghanistan. To avoid IEDs, the Marines stay off the roads and advance through a field. At the edge of the field is a row of huts. Suddenly, two Marines are hit. The Marines take cover, although there is little to protect them in the open field.
In the wake of Rolling Stone's now-famous article about Stanley McChrystal, the military cast doubt on some facts in the piece, with the help of the Washington Post: In an interview Friday, the managing editor, Will Dana, said the reporter's notes and factual matters were exhaustively reviewed. <a target="_new" href="http://ad.doubleclick.net/click%3Bh%3Dv8/39d9/3/0/%2a/e%3B226086389%3B1-0%3B0%3B50039633%3B4307-300/250%3B37315406/37333284/1%3Bu%3Do_2a_5bCS_5dv1_7c256E458205160B37_2d40000182603A9A1E_5bCE_5d%3B%7Eaopt%3D0/ff/a3/ff%3B%7Efdr%3D226161626%3B0-0%3B0%3B20580506%3B4307-300/250%3B3
The plainly intolerable violations of professional behavior exhibited by General Stanley McChrystal in the Rolling Stone article surely justified his firing. Any officer in a position of responsibility who permits a culture of arrogance and contempt for civilian leadership to develop, instead of crushing both at their first appearance, surrenders his or her legitimacy as a commander of American armed forces. This was hardly a trivial gaffe or some error in judgment.
“Command climate” is what shapes a military organization. The preferences, priorities, and peccadilloes of the commander echo across its staff and subordinate units. Command climate functions as an organization's persona and it plays just as powerful a role in its behavior—and effectiveness—as an individual's personality.
Washington—Gen. Stanley McChrystal put President Obama in an impossible position. That is why he had to go. A general’s tasks involve executing policies made by the commander in chief, plotting strategy and winning wars—not playing politics in the media to get at civilian rivals inside the government. What McChrystal did required Obama to change generals at a decisive moment in the Afghanistan conflict or risk looking weak and out of control.
“When you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them,” General Stanley McChrystal recently told reporters. “It’s a deliberate process. It takes time to convince people.” The remark, notable for its defensive tone, provides a small but telling indication that things are not going well in Afghanistan. If there were any doubts on that score, Rolling Stone’s profile of the “Runaway General” and his eminently quotable staff have quashed them. The wheels are starting to come off the Afghan Victory Express.