Stanley McChrystal Under Fire: What Does It Mean For Counterinsurgency Strategy?

The shockwaves of Michael Hastings' newly-published Rolling Stone article, "The Runaway General," are set to ripple all week long. Even as we speak, General Stanley McChrystal is winging his way states-ward to speak to President Barack Obama about comments made by he and his aides that ended up in Hastings' piece. And as I write this, the White House Press corps are pressing Robert Gibbs on whether McChrystal's command is over. (Gibbs has offered that all options are "on the table.")

First, I'll join my friend Spencer Ackerman in a round of "taking it on the chin." Like he, I found the spate of late-2009 stories touting a rift between McChrystal and Obama to be an overhyped round of manufactured media narratives. But Hastings' own work demonstrates that I was wrong, there was something to it all along.

Now, the question is this: is it possible to even contemplate McChrystal being removed from his command? My instincts tell me that we're about to endure a fancy bit of White House shame-pageantry: McChrystal comes hat in hand, he and the President have a heart-to-heart, and in the end, everyone gets back to work.

I'm prepared to be wrong about this! But that's how I see it playing out, if only because McChrystal has essentially become the living avatar of counterinsurgency strategy itself. Were it not for his own storied (and controversial!) past -- well documented by Hastings -- it would be possible to imagine that the man was birthed wholesale from the pages of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual. This is something else that Hastings makes rivetingly clear. He also makes it clear that McChrystal's Sit-Room evangelizing isn't necessarily taking hold in the field: "McChrystal may have sold President Obama on counterinsurgency, but many of his own men aren't buying it."

Despite the tragedies and miscues, McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It's "insurgent math," as he calls it - for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. He has ordered convoys to curtail their reckless driving, put restrictions on the use of air power and severely limited night raids. He regularly apologizes to Hamid Karzai when civilians are killed, and berates commanders responsible for civilian deaths. "For a while," says one U.S. official, "the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan was in front of McChrystal after a 'civ cas' incident." The ISAF command has even discussed ways to make not killing into something you can win an award for: There's talk of creating a new medal for "courageous restraint," a buzzword that's unlikely to gain much traction in the gung-ho culture of the U.S. military.

But however strategic they may be, McChrystal's new marching orders have caused an intense backlash among his own troops. Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. "Bottom line?" says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers' lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing."

It's worth pointing out that the COIN field manual very explicitly does not promise a low-casualty rose garden: "As the level of insurgent violence drops, the requirements of international law and the expectations of the populace allow less use of military actions by the counterinsurgent. More reliance is placed on police work. Rules of engagement get stricter, and troops have to exercise increased restraint. Soldiers and Marines may also have to accept more risk to maintain involvement with the people."

There's also a eye-catching, almost snarky admonition in the COIN manual that could literally be applied throughout its entire elocution of the strategy: "If this sounds un-military, get over it."

As Spencer notes today, "It'll be hard to fire McChrystal without ripping the entire Afghanistan strategy up." Again, I'm prepared to be wrong about this, but I don't see cashiering McChrystal happening, given that the depiction of the "rift" here amounts to some personal slights, some unguarded drunk-talk among aides, and McChrystal's sincere belief that Karl Eikenberry's criticisms felt like a "betrayal" from a friend. On the matter of mission, McChrystal got what he wanted from the White House, and vice-versa.

Whether or not that's a good thing is, of course, a matter for debate. As Hastings points out, there's an inherent and unavoidable perversity knit up in counterinsurgency strategy:

The COIN doctrine, bizarrely, draws inspiration from some of the biggest Western military embarrassments in recent memory: France's nasty war in Algeria (lost in 1962) and the American misadventure in Vietnam (lost in 1975). McChrystal, like other advocates of COIN, readily acknowledges that counterinsurgency campaigns are inherently messy, expensive and easy to lose.

That's all very true. In fact, it's really hard to read the COIN Field Manual and not be left with the impression that it is as much an article of faith as it is an elucidation of military strategy. (For my part, while I'm no one's idea of a hardcore "COINdinista," I remain in a sort of Fox Mulder position on the matter: I want to believe.)

The amazing thing about it is there's no complaints from McChrystal or his staff about the administration on any substantive ground. After all, McChrystal and his allies won the argument within the White House. All the criticisms -- of Eikenberry, of Jones, of Holbrooke, of Biden -- are actually just immature and arrogant snipes at how annoying Team America (what, apparently, McChrystal's crew calls itself) finds them. This is not mission-first, to say the least.

In fact, you have to go deep in the piece to find soldiers and officers offering actual critiques -- and what they offer is criticism of McChrystal for being insufficiently brutal. Everyone of them quoted here is a mini-Ralph Peters, upset because McChrystal won't let them "get our fucking gun on," as one puts it.

Nevertheless, that's the line of tension on which President Obama and General McChrystal will soon be treading. What happens next could radically alter the path in Afghanistan, potentially dealing a significant setback to proponents of counterinsurgency strategy.

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