Vol. 10 - No. 1




Afghan Security Needs Focus After Trash-Talking General Goes



General Stanley McChrystal's removal from his position of pre-eminent military leadership in Afghanistan has deflected attention from the continuing need for a sober, non-rancorous national debate on the war in Afghanistan.

That, too, will come, however, for who can forget that McChrystal's fall from grace took place in June, the same month in which his strategy appeared to be running out of gas.

According to current reports, 100 foreign troops died in Afghanistan in June, "bringing 2010's total to 319, compared with 521 in 2009." The previous "worst month" for the anti-Taliban international coalition was August 2009, when 77 troops were killed.

The resurgence of military activity directed at ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) troops surely suggests that another reappraisal of the war'ss realities would, at the very least, be helpful. But first, the McChrystal calamity.


Twenty minutes in the Oval Office of the White House was all it took to eject "Stan's-the-Man" from his role of supreme military leadership in Afghanistan. He was said to have offered President Barack Obama his resignation and the president accepted -- swiftly, no doubt, lest the general have second thoughts.

McChrystal's abrupt and ignominious departure from his powerful post, caused by what seemed to be a surge of childish irresponsibility by the general and his closest aides, brings into question the assessments and advice that influenced Obama's decision to elevate him to supreme military leadership.

He was highly recommended by the Pentagon's top brass as both a strategic thinker and a man of action; personally endowed with the virtue of self-discipline. Great expectations were therefore raised when Obama nominated him to take on the responsibility of the "forgotten war" in Afghanistan.

Were those assessments justified or were they based primarily on the good vibes that the general gave out in his relationship with his military bosses? Obama was undoubtedly impressed by his credentials, and his nomination of McChrystal was generally well received. History will decide whether the "feel good" reception was justified.

Obama graciously acknowledged McChrystal's years of service, and his positive qualities, in a brief explanatory address to the nation. The president reminded his audience that "all Americans should be grateful for General McChrystal's remarkable career in uniform." Neverthesless, the expectations raised by McChrystal's appointment have now joined others in "the graveyard of empires."


Men and women in uniform face death on behalf of their comrades and their fellow-citizens. Perhaps it is that knowledge which endows "military culture" with swagger, a "can do" approach to most matters, a sense of ribaldry, and sometimes rowdiness.

All this is considered "normal" among men and women in uniform when they are in their own company. As members of the armed services, however, they are expected to keep their lips tightly closed in the presence of outsiders, especially outsiders from the fourth estate. "Careless talk costs lives" was a World War 2 slogan. Today, it can also cost jobs.

Men and women in uniform are also expected to remember and live by the principle that in a democracy the military functions under civilian authority.

Of course, they are quite free to engage in politics, and advocate a change of policies under which they functioned, but only when they have ended their military careers.

McChrystal and his 'Team America' crashed through the well-established boundaries. They blabbed to a reporter from the magazine Rolling Stone, mouthing criticisms and insults directed primarily at their civilian masters.

Many of these indiscreet comments found their way into the reporter's article published in Rolling Stone under the heading "Runaway General."

The conduct of McChrystal and his Team America "represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general," Obama pointed out. "It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that's necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan." And so it was "curtains" for Stanís-the-Man.

Since then, some news outlets have reported that McChrystal plans to retire from military service altogether. The retirement process is expected to take several months.


Obama has nominated another highly reputed general, David Petraeus to succeed McChrystal, and the nominee's confirmation hearings are imminent at the time of writing. Petraeus is highly regarded in the legislature and most expectations are that the hearings will be something of a "love fest," with his confirmation a certainty.

However, Petraeus will take up his duties in the shadow of doubts cast on the course of the war in Afghanistan by none other than McChrystal himself.

London's The Independent newspaper reported on June 27, 2010 that some days before his removal from office, McChrystal issued a "devastatingly critical assessment of the war" against a "resilient and growing insurgency."

He is said to have cautioned NATO's Defence Ministers not to expect any progress in the next six months. Such a negative assessment by the general who was until recently managing the war against the Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan surely raises serious questions about its future course.

McChrystal's reported sense of caution -- some would no doubt call it downright pessimism -- is reflected, as well, in the current quarterly UN report to the UN Security Council which flatly said that the overall security situation had not improved since the previous report three months earlier.


The war was launched in retaliation for the massacre of September 11, 2001. When Osama bin Laden, leader of Al Qaeda, triumphantly took credit for that attack, the U.S. Senate authorized military action against Al Qaeda by a vote of 98 to zero. In the House of Representatives the vote was 420 to 1. That authorization remains unchanged.

Also in force is NATO's invocation of Article 5 of its charter which holds that an attack on one member nation is an attack on all. Similarly, the UN Security Council has endorsed the use of all necessary steps to respond to the 9/11 attacks.

The war was commended when it was launched, as a "war of necessity." With the war still far from conclusion, its founding fathers of the Bush Administration changed course, diverting resources into action in Iraq where thousands had to "die for a lie." Drained of resources, ISAF troops in Afghanistan remained under continuing pressure, and faced setbacks.

Obama, in campaign mode at the time, and accused by his opponents of both the Republican and Democratic parties of being "soft" on national security issues, decided to show his "toughness" by espousing a greater war effort.


He announced (on August 1, 2007) that as president he would "deploy at least two additional brigades to Afghanistan to re-enforce our counter-terrorism operations and support NATO's efforts against the Taliban."

Two years later, on Aug. 30, 2009, faced with continuing military setbacks, and realizing that Afghanistan was engulfed in political, social, and economic deterioration, McChrystal, by then the commander of NATO and U.S. forces, pressed the case for a new strategy and additional resources.

He cautioned that "failure to provide adequate resources also risks a longer conflict, greater casualties, higher overall costs, and ultimately, a critical loss of political support. Any of these risks, in turn, are likely to result in mission failure."

Setbacks continue and, apparently so does pessimism despite the fact that McChrystal's strategy of counter-insurgency is in place and additional troops have been deployed in Afghanistan.


Petraeus and the Obama Administration's national security team appear to face formidable challenges -- yet again -- as they look to the future. A perception of disunity within that team is just one of them, and perhaps easiest to fix.

Much more difficult is the assessment by experts with substantial experience in Afghanistan who argue that the greatest problem afflicting the U.S.-led coalition is its lack of a credible civilian ally, a vital need in a strategy based on counterinsurgency.

A corollary of this view is that ISAF lacks civilian support on the ground because it is considered an "occupying force."

Some of these experts believe that "the war in Afghanistan cannot be won, cannot be lost."

Working his way through this minefield of ideas and ground realities is the test that awaits Petraeus when his anticipated love-fest with legislators is done. 


[Source: IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters]


The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth's Select Committee on the media and development. Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is on the IDN editorial board.

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