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McChrystal: Afghanistan war spins out of America’s control

UPDATE: This post has been re-published as an article in spiked (here).

President Obama fired General Stanley McChrystal from his post as commander of US military forces in Afghanistan today, and replaced him with General David Petraeus, who led the 2007 surge campaign in Iraq. This was in response to comments made by McChrystal and his aides that ridiculed Obama and members of his national security team, reported in a Rolling Stone magazine article.

What’s striking is how juvenile most of the remarks are. They are not witty or clever, nor do they represent an off-the-cuff “truth” that everyone recognizes but is afraid to say. About an upcoming dinner with a French minister, an aide says “It’s fucking gay.” Preparing for questions about an earlier run-in with Vice-President Joe Biden over counter-terrorism strategy, an aide suggests McChrystal respond by saying “Biden? Did you say: Bite Me?” Hilarious.

There have been plenty of conflicts in the past between presidents and generals. But most of those showdowns were mainly about the content of the task – military strategy and execution. McChrystal’s indiscretions are petty and personal, and thus different than the insubordinate words of General Douglas MacArthur (who was fired by President Harry Truman for threatening to take the war to China in 1951) or Navy Admiral William Fallon (who resigned in 2008 after publicly criticizing the Bush administration’s policy towards Iran).

McChrystal also seems embarrassingly naïve about letting a journalist from a hippie magazine hang around with him and his aides. Military brass are supposed to be known for their hardcore discipline, but McChrystal’s decision to not just speak to the media himself, but to allow his aides to do so as well, displayed a shocking lack of discipline. I know that values associated with the military, such as loyalty and commitment, are not revered in society today, but you still don’t expect a top military officer to abandon them.   

The move to fire McChrystal comes at a time when the US/Nato campaign in Afghanistan is stalled. Last December, Obama announced a new strategy, which combined a surge with a planned date of withdrawal in July 2011. As I noted in a spiked article at the time, this is a bizarre approach, which neither sees the job through to victory (however defined) nor ensures a quick withdrawal. More recently, there have been setbacks in waging the war in Afghanistan, including ongoing violence in the Marjah region, increasing deaths among civilians, and a delay in a major operation in Kandahar.

McChrystal’s petulant remarks represent, in fact, a continuation of the disagreements that emerged during the administration’s three-month review of its war strategy last year. That process was also marked by leaks and counter-leaks. McChrystal’s indiscretion appears to be not simply a one-off case of bad judgment. Rather, it seems to be the latest example in an ongoing tale of personal infighting and rivalries among national security officials.

And what explains this outbreak of pettiness? Fundamentally, the issue is a lack of unity around the war’s aim. It is not possible to cohere around the goal, because that goal is unclear. Are US troops temporary fighters against Al-Qaeda (who by the way have left the country)? Nation-builders against the Taliban and behind the government of the corrupt Afghan President Hamid Karzai? Social workers trying to restore villages?

To paraphrase a famous saying, disputes in the public sector are so nasty and personal because the stakes are so low. You would have thought that a war, with lives of soldiers and civilians at stake, would be the opposite – high stakes and high purpose. But again, the lack of clarity about the US mission has undermined unity, and now the supposedly ultra-disciplined military are just as bitchy as a group of social workers sitting around a canteen.

The US and Nato are losing the war on the ground in Afghanistan, especially when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. The disarray among the American military officials and civilian leaders is the product of a war without purpose, and shows the US has lost control.

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