Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
The U.S. ambassador duly apologized, citing brake failure as the cause of the accident. Many Afghans weren’t buying—they charged the Americans with reckless driving, indicative of a general disregard for Afghan life. By no means incidentally, just one week before, an errant U.S. air strike in Kandahar Province had killed at least sixteen and as many as thirty-four Afghan civilians, a group that included women and children, provoking outrage.
U.S. authorities had apologized for that unfortunate miscue as well, as they would for many others.
The air strike gone wrong had targeted a resurgent Taliban. No evidence connected the rioters in Kabul to the Taliban or to Al Qaeda. They were merely ordinary Afghans increasingly intolerant of foreigners who enjoyed a privileged status while producing little of apparent value. Afghanistan was becoming a two-front war nested within a larger two-front war. On one front were insurgents intent on overthrowing the government; on the other front was a disaffected populace increasingly inclined to see that government as a tool of the occupiers.
Through 2007 and 2008, conditions in Iraq appeared to be improving. In Afghanistan, they were growing worse. So at least Secretary of Defense Gates concluded during periodic visits to survey the situation. The war there, he later wrote, “was clearly headed in the wrong direction.” Statistical indicators, especially as measured by enemy activity, supported that assessment. The problems afflicting Operation Enduring Freedom were legion. According to Gates, they included “insufficient levels of combat troops and trainers, inadequate numbers of civilian experts, confusing command and control, the lack of multinational coordination on the civilian side, and deficient civil-military coordination.”
On one occasion, flying over the desolate Afghan landscape, the Pentagon chief asked himself,
Why are people fighting over this godforsaken place?
He provided no answer to this pertinent question. Although President Bush agreed to token reinforcements—there were thirty thousand U.S. troops in country when he left office—the Afghan situation appeared increasingly grim.
By the time Obama moved into the White House, army General David McKiernan was commanding U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. He was the sixth American general, beginning with Tommy Franks, to have charge of the Second Afghanistan War. Five more were to follow.
A stolid and phlegmatic officer well versed in the conventions of mechanized warfare, McKiernan confronted a situation in which those conventions did not apply. Candidly describing his war as deadlocked, he did not minimize the obstacles he confronted. Chief among those obstacles were too few troops, too many political restrictions—euphemistically known as “caveats”—that limited the utility of allied contingents, and the existence of de facto jihadist sanctuaries in Pakistan.
McKiernan embraced the view that the war could not be won militarily, by now almost a mantra among senior U.S. military officers. Just a few years earlier those same officers had insisted with equal conviction that winning wars militarily described what the armed forces of the United States existed to do. No more. Expectations regarding how military efforts might contribute to America’s War for the Greater Middle East were evolving. McKiernan’s own assessment reflected that evolution. Combat operations might continue—“we are not going to run out of bad people with bad intentions that we could kill or capture”—but ending the Second Afghanistan War was going to require a political solution. McKiernan wasn’t counting on such a solution to materialize anytime soon. To reach the “point where we see the light at the end of this tunnel of this long war” was likely to require years, he said. An officer corps that had expected wars to be brief now took it for granted that they would be anything but.
What McKiernan wanted from the incoming Obama administration was quite simple: more troops, to arrive before a Taliban offensive expected for the summer of 2009. Although possessed by an impulse to do more in Afghanistan, the new administration lacked a clear idea of how to translate more into a positive outcome of the war. McKiernan’s request and the administration’s impulse prompted an early presidential decision, announced on February 17, 2009, to deploy an additional seventeen thousand troops. These reinforcements were “necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation,” according to the president.
A high-level policy review to determine what the United States hoped to achieve beyond stabilization yielded a laundry list of generalities. Unveiling the results of that review in late March, Obama vowed “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan” but offered few particulars.
Only on one issue did clarity emerge: McKiernan was not the guy for the job ahead. On May 6, Secretary Gates flew to Kabul and informed McKiernan that he was being replaced. Not since Harry Truman fired Douglas MacArthur in 1951 had a four-star U.S. commander been peremptorily relieved of a wartime command. MacArthur lost his job due to rank insubordination. McKiernan lost his because he didn’t seem the right fit. He lacked spark. Acting on his defense secretary’s strong recommendation, Obama wasted little time in appointing Stanley McChrystal as McKiernan’s replacement.
McChrystal was a remarkable soldier. Like a world-class athlete at the top of his game, he exuded an intensity that allowed little room for anything apart from the mission at hand. He was a laser, not a searchlight. For over four years, from 2004 to 2008, McChrystal had directed anti–Al Qaeda counterterrorism operations, a small covert fragment of a much larger conflict. In Iraq, he declared it his intention to “disembowel” the terrorist network. Killing the leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq and anyone daring to succeed the deceased, he believed, would ultimately cause “the organization to collapse in on itself.”
To test that hypothesis, the task force he commanded developed a remarkable aptitude for killing, typically at night, almost always in secret, its members a law unto themselves.
As other senior officers rotated in and out of the war zone, McChrystal had stayed on the job, achieving legendary status even while largely avoiding the limelight.
In 2006, a
puff piece had touted him as the “Hidden General.”
Now, as he prepared to assume responsibility for presiding over the stalemated war effort in Afghanistan, any last vestiges of anonymity disappeared. The Petraeus phenomenon had fostered expectations of the general who singlehandedly saves the day. Reporters now fell all over themselves, describing McChrystal as the next Petraeus. In an admiring profile, journalist Dexter Filkins stated the matter directly: “And so if it was Petraeus who saved Iraq from cataclysm, it now falls to McChrystal to save Afghanistan.”
By common consent, he seemed the man for the job. McChrystal was a “warrior-scholar,”
The New York Times
reported with satisfaction.
He possessed “drive and intellect,”
The Washington Post
added, and had won renown for his pronounced “abilities in team-building and problem-solving.”
He was also something of an ascetic, a “Zen Warrior,” according to
“Fit as a tuning fork,”
gushed, McChrystal typically ran ten miles each morning before dawn, subsisted on a diet that would have tested a Trappist monk—he considered eating lunch “a sign of weakness”—and stocked his iPod and Kindle with “serious tomes on Pakistan, Lincoln and Vietnam.” McChrystal was going to do things differently, and
approved. “Military policy in Afghanistan is now in the hands of this likable and very, very focused soldier.”
The hyperbole had serious implications. McChrystal’s civilian superiors were disinclined to place policy formulation in the hands of any general officer, no matter how likable and focused. Yet on the perpetually shifting see-saw of U.S. civil-military relations, the military now enjoyed the upper hand. War was simply too important an enterprise to be left to civilians—so a public disenchanted with Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz (while smitten with David Petraeus) had come to believe. Senior members of the officer corps were quick to exploit the opening that this change in mood presented.
The intensely politicized nature of the civil-military relationship defines one of Washington’s prime hidden-in-plain-sight secrets. Yes, ultimately, senior military leaders view themselves as subordinate to civilian authority. So a “Seven Days in May” conspiracy to overthrow the government is well-nigh an impossibility. Shy of orchestrating a coup, however, senior officers (or subordinates acting on their behalf) engage in all sorts of shenanigans to advance the agenda of a particular command, service, or individual. For public consumption, all parties punctiliously observe the requisite proprieties. But these no more define the actual relationship than do the courtesies that a philandering husband extends to his wife on the occasion of their anniversary—as both parties to that relationship fully understand.
Gates sent McChrystal off to his new posting with this charge: Report back within sixty days with a concrete proposal for how to turn around the Second Afghanistan War, using the additional resources Obama had already agreed to provide. The idea was that McChrystal would recommend; the president, taking the counsel of his military and civilian advisers, would decide; and then McChrystal would loyally implement that decision. In war planning, Rumsfeld had employed an intrusive approach to extract the answer he wanted. Gates was inclined to give field commanders greater breathing space. Neither approach lacked for drawbacks.
With characteristic energy, McChrystal went immediately to work. He arrived in Afghanistan in mid-June. Within ten days he had notified Gates that conditions there were far worse than he had anticipated. Within a month, word was reaching the Pentagon that McChrystal’s as yet unfinished plan was likely to require troops
the increment Obama had already approved. By early August, press reports were previewing McChrystal’s likely request for reinforcements, as many as forty thousand more, even before he had provided the administration with a rationale for why they might be needed. The general was getting way out in front of his civilian bosses.
On August 30, McChrystal submitted his assessment to Secretary Gates. Containing many assertions but few facts, the sixty-six-page document was long on exhortation and short on reasoned analysis. History received only a passing glance, although McChrystal took a swipe at “the myth advanced in the media that Afghanistan is a ‘graveyard of empires,’ ” which he categorically rejected. Numbers were notable by their absence.
McChrystal began his assessment on a portentous note. “The stakes in Afghanistan are high,” he wrote, adding that “the situation in Afghanistan is serious.” Although “success is achievable,” he emphasized that “it will not be attained simply by trying harder.” The key was to win over the population, which “represents a powerful actor that can and must be leveraged.” Leveraging Afghan hearts and minds meant that the troops under his command needed “a fundamentally new way of doing business.” ISAF required a “new operational culture” that “connects with the powerful will of the Afghan people,” implicitly assumed to be of one mind.
As a supposed basis for a military campaign, the document was, in a word, squishy.
Most strikingly, in describing the way ahead, McChrystal did not make even a pretense of weighing a range of possible alternatives. His commander’s assessment contained no Option A to compare with B and C. There was only A—“a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign.” The acknowledged master of counterterrorism was opting for an entirely different game: COIN. As a course change, this was on a par with Michael Jordan abandoning basketball to give baseball a try.
The Obama administration received this recommendation without enthusiasm. McChrystal’s COIN campaign was going to require more troops—within the White House an unwelcome prospect, for both fiscal and political reasons. Worse, McChrystal’s presentation deprived Obama of choice. In effect, the general’s message to his commander in chief was “Here, rubber-stamp this.”
As if to drive home the limits on Obama’s freedom of maneuver, General Petraeus, now commanding CENTCOM, chose this particular moment to offer his views on Afghanistan to Michael Gerson, a
columnist of decidedly hawkish persuasion. His standing as a military oracle at its height, Petraeus was especially well regarded in Republican Party circles. Before reinventing himself as a pundit, Gerson had spent years working as a senior aide to President George W. Bush.
Now, Petraeus obligingly shared with Gerson his considered opinion that in Afghanistan “the core principles of counterinsurgency still obtain.” True, applying those principles was going to require “a lot more resources.” But overall Petraeus seconded the hints coming from McChrystal’s headquarters in Kabul. “We have to regain the initiative,” he told Gerson. “We have to get ahead of this, to arrest the downward spiral, to revive momentum.” COIN offered the means to do just that. By implication, it was incumbent upon Obama to recognize the obvious.