The Right Word
By Kelly Sloan
The first thing that strikes me regarding the General McChrystal situation is the dichotomy – The key players in the drama both did things simultaneously right and wrong.
It has to be said, that in this situation, the President did, ultimately, make the correct decision in releasing Gen McChrystal from his duties, and installing General Petraeus as field commander in Afghanistan.
McChrystal said nothing factually wrong. His points were valid. They were also far out of line. The military leadership does not air grievances with the civilian command authority in public. Ever. Period. It is not simply a matter of propriety, important as that may be, but one of basic military discipline. As an NCO in the Army neither I, nor my fellow sergeants, ever disagreed with our Officers in front of the troops, even when they were clearly wrong (a not unknown occurrence for young Lieutenants). The reason was simple - the troops needed to see unity of command, and the enemy needed to at least be under the illusion that his opponents leadership was reading off the same page, thus denying him the chink in the armor that he sought. The alternative is to sow the seeds of doubt amongst the soldiers, regarding the mission, the plan, the leadership, etc. A body of soldiers unified in purpose can overcome a myriad of obstacles, including (to some extent), poor decisions by the commanders. That same group, riddled with doubt, lacking confidence, denied purpose, will rarely succeed. Gen McChrystal may have been right (he was), and held the responsibility for bringing his doubts and concerns to the commander – in – Chief, but he also bore the responsibility to do so in private.
Wise too was the choice of whom to replace him with. General Petraeus is a capable, proven, smart officer, with the same tactical mindset as his predecessor, thereby minimizing the impact at ground level of the change.
That said, these points in no way grant President Obama absolution. Like other decisions he has made in regards to Afghanistan that may have been ultimately correct, his performance in this case was qualified.
First, Obama should not have given Gen. McChrystal any cause for these kinds of serious complaints in the first place. Although finally making the (mostly) right decision to add reinforcements to Afghanistan (albeit 10,000 troops short, and several months late), Obama’s arbitrary withdrawal date, presumably chosen with the aid of a dartboard or dice, basically ensures eventual defeat, regardless if interim successes. The technical differences aside, the very fact that such a level of discord and contention exists between the White House and the military demonstrates Obama’s reluctance to listen to his field commanders, a reluctance that flirts with contempt for his military. This is not a healthy situation, and is as compromising to the mission and national security as insufficient troop strengths and arbitrary withdrawal dates.
While installing Petraeus was a prudent move, it was less a stroke of genius than a no-brainer. Had Obama put in place an ideologically compliant sock-puppet, the political consequences of such an obvious political act would have been as destructive for his administration as the real-life consequences – battlefield defeats, body bags, and overall mission failure – would have been for the country.
Obama has some serious problems in Afghanistan, many of them self-inflicted, which will not quietly slip into hibernation while he figures out whether or not he has time or inclination to deal with them. Afghanistan is not Iraq – the surge strategy may well work, but the tactics will be necessarily different. The Afghans are already showing signs of hedging their bets for when the U.S. packs up, which will make any rapport with the locals, necessary for the counterinsurgency strategy to work, immensely more problematic. It is difficult to predict whether or not it is in fact too late to salvage the Afghan situation, but certainly another Truman-MacArthur show will not profitable.