No matter what you think of Gen. McChrystal after the Rolling Stone article and the fiasco that ensued, he knew how to work in Afghanistan. Here are a few things he got right.
He turned a floundering, badly resourced multinational peacekeeping mission into a war that it should have been. After Afghanistan's Northern Alliance militias helped American B52 bombers kick the Taliban out of power, the international forces in Afghanistan largely stayed within their bases, conducted occasional patrols and engaged in a firefight or two every once in a while. The resultant lack of military pressure on the Taliban is one of the main reasons they made a comeback. McChrystal brought in 30,000 new boots on the ground and actually started the war that has undoubtedly put more pressure than ever on the Taliban.
He issued strict directives to avoid civilian casualties. McChrystal called it insurgent math, and the Rolling Stone article summed it pretty nicely: "For every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies."
In addition to significantly altering the rules of combat, he engaged in smooth public diplomacy. He apologized publicly to the Afghan people for confirmed civilian deaths in the hands of his soldiers. Suspected civilian deaths were investigated, perpetrators punished and, on occasion, the rules of engagement accordingly tweaked. As a result, civilian casualties dropped significantly.
He knew how to deal with Afghan leadership. Described as increasingly erratic and unpredictable, President Karzai was a diplomatic conundrum for Washington. After Hohlbrooke and Obama chastised him for corruption and ineffective governance, he received Ahmadinejad in Kabul, giving the Iranian leader a venue to spew his usual anti-American, anti-West rhetoric. The increasingly estranged Karzai even threatened to join the Taliban.
Dismayed and defeated, Obama invited him on a visit to the White House, gave him the red carpet treatment and directed his Afghanistan team to treat Karzai with more respect.
McChrystal, however, knew better. While other American officials chided Karzai for being an inadequate strategic partner, McChrystal worked to make the best of the partnership.
In what was the first ever move of its kind in this war, McChrystal haggled with Karzai's staff for hours to gain access to the President -- who was recovering from a cold -- to get the go-ahead for a major offensive in the South. More recently, McChrystal appeared alongside Karzai in a number of public forums in Kandahar aiming to build support for the largest offensive of the war.
Earlier in Karzai's presidency when civilian casualties in the hands of ISAF forces threatened to undermine Karzai's reputation as an effective leader and his repeated pleas to curb casualties fell on deaf ears... McChrystal came along and changed the status quo.
No wonder Karzai wanted McChrystal to stay.