Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
How McChrystal might have applied these insights is impossible to say. The general himself abruptly departed the scene, felled by an embarrassing magazine article appearing in
Having spent the better part of his career in a realm where keeping secrets secret and journalists at arm’s length constitute basic survival skills, McChrystal had invited a reporter to become a de facto member of his military household. This unfathomable decision produced predictable results. The reporter affirmed his preexisting antiwar credentials by publishing an exposé that quoted McChrystal’s chief aides—“Team America,” by their own estimation—mocking senior members of the Obama administration as clueless clowns, with the general himself joining in the fun.
In a system of civil-military relations that values the observance of proprieties above all else, the general had committed an unpardonable offense.
Sparing President Obama from having to fire him outright, McChrystal resigned his position and retired. In so doing, of course, he also spared himself from having to confront the reality that his much-hyped campaign to turn around the Afghanistan War had flopped. Dealing with the consequences of that failure now fell to General Petraeus. By agreeing to take the reins in Kabul—in effect, stepping down a notch from his position as CENTCOM commander—Petraeus spared President Obama from having to explain why his previous hand-picked choice to run the war had so quickly flamed out. Both politically and substantively, replacing McChrystal with the maestro of COIN offered the most expeditious way to put the entire episode to rest. Rather than Michael Jordan trying his hand at baseball, here was Barry Bonds, the greatest home run hitter of all time, stepping up to the plate.
Assuming command in July 2010, Petraeus faced many problems, but one in particular demanded immediate attention: ditching the “new operational culture” that McChrystal had sought to infuse in ISAF. This sudden demand for cultural change had not been well received, particularly within the ranks of the United States military. Soldiers socialized to see themselves as heroic warriors did not take kindly to orders from on high to become something between community organizers and cops—especially when doing so endangered themselves and their buddies.
To vent their unhappiness, some troops directed to demonstrate courageous restraint did just the reverse. And some tactical commanders directed to ensure compliance with that policy denounced it as idiotic.
Among those opting for action over restraint was Captain Mathew Golsteyn, an army special forces officer. For gallantry in action at Marja, Golsteyn earned a Silver Star—only to have it subsequently revoked amidst accusations that he had executed an unarmed Afghan suspected of being a bomb-maker. While criminal charges were never filed, Army investigators reported that Golsteyn later said that he had been concerned that freeing the Afghan would put Americans potentially at risk, and that he would not be able to live with himself if more Americans lost their lives.
At roughly the same time, a group of U.S. Marines elsewhere in Helmand Province weighed in with their own take on protecting the local population: They videotaped themselves urinating on three Afghan corpses.
Similarly, as Moshtarak was unfolding, U.S. troops assigned to the 5th Stryker Brigade in neighboring Kandahar Province perpetrated a series of random killings of Afghan civilians. In one instance they posed for photographs with a victim, a young boy, “as if it were a trophy deer.” The apparent motive was thrill-seeking, compounded by a generalized contempt for the local population.
These soldiers manifestly did not share McChrystal’s view regarding the supreme importance of protecting innocent Afghans. Here, in sum, was a pattern of conduct fundamentally at odds with the commanding general’s stated intentions.
Prominent among those overtly challenging the policy itself was Colonel Harry Tunnell, commander of the 5th Stryker Brigade when the atrocities noted above occurred. Tunnell was cut from the same cloth as Colonel Michael Steele, the commander who had rejected General Casey’s attempted implementation of COIN in Iraq. Like Steele, Tunnell stubbornly adhered to the conviction that in war there is
a military solution: You find it by subjecting your adversary to unremitting pressure. Severely wounded while commanding a battalion in Iraq, Tunnell had penned a brief reflection on his experience there. “Military leaders must stay focused on the destruction of the enemy,” he wrote. “It is virtually impossible to convince any committed terrorist who hates America to change his or her point of view—they simply must be attacked relentlessly.”
That was back in 2005. Nothing that occurred in the intervening years had caused him to modify his views.
Deploying with his brigade to Afghanistan in 2009 as part of the Obama buildup, Tunnell arrived bent on killing insurgents rather than winning friends. In Kandahar Province, he found the fight he was looking for. During his tour of duty, his brigade killed plenty, while losing 37 soldiers with another 238 wounded. Tunnell himself attracted unfavorable attention from his superiors for being more interested in body count than in implementing the latest COIN precepts.
Such criticism, while effectively ending his prospects for further promotion, left him unfazed. Indeed, the defiant Tunnell used his departure from command as an occasion to share his views with Secretary of the Army John McHugh. Those who bowed obsequiously at the altar of COIN were worshipping a false god, Tunnell wrote in a letter addressed to McHugh. Counterinsurgency doctrine was nonsense. It consisted of little more than “musings from amateurs, contractors, plagiarized journal articles.” Misguided adherence to bogus COIN theories was contributing to “needless American casualties” while actually “enabling our enemy.” As a direct result, the army to which Tunnell had devoted his professional life had become “a chronic failure.”
By taking the highly unusual step of taking his complaint directly to the army’s senior ranking civilian, Colonel Tunnell signaled his lack of confidence in the general officers occupying positions in the chain of command between himself and the secretary. If doubt remained on that score, his missive removed it by decrying the army’s “dysfunctional and toxic leadership environment.” Since an inept and spineless general officer corps was not going to remedy the problem, restoring the army to health was going to require vigorous civilian intervention.
Whatever the merits of Tunnell’s critique—which, if nothing else, reflected a conception of war to which most ordinary Americans subscribed—it made explicit two great questions dogging America’s War for the Greater Middle East as it entered its fourth decade: Are we in this thing to win, or not? And, if not, what’s the point of fighting? In combination with troubling incidents of soldier misconduct, Colonel Tunnell’s refusal to embrace the theology of COIN hinted at a deep and festering discontent. Left unchecked, that discontent could cause an army to become a mob.
Petraeus moved quickly to address one specific source of that discontent by revoking the rules of engagement issued to implement courageous restraint. The McChrystal ROE had found little favor with U.S. troops, who complained of being “handcuffed by our chain of command.”
Although the Petraeus revision did not remove those handcuffs, it loosened them considerably. Whereas McChrystal had prioritized protecting civilians, Petraeus now declared it “a moral imperative both to protect Afghan civilians
to bring all assets to bear to protect our men and women in uniform.”
Bringing all assets to bear implied greater latitude in employing heavy firepower.
The new ROE were a portent. During his one year in Kabul, the wizard of COIN played against type. On his watch, there was not going to be a rerun of Marja launched amidst high hopes and big promises. Instead, Petraeus quietly shelved “clear, hold, and build” in favor of something more akin to “find, fix, and kill.” The officer most responsible for counterinsurgency’s rebirth now effectively abandoned his offspring.
By the summer of 2010 Afghanistan had come to resemble the latter stages of the Third Gulf War: In the downward revision of war aims, facilitating an orderly exit emerged as priority number one. Even as Operation Moshtarak was still unfolding, a key aide told Petraeus that the best the United States could hope for in Afghanistan was to “get to a point of some transient stability and the appearance of success.” Although the appearance was not likely to endure, it “might provide a window for us to withdraw, and to keep things steady for the next three or four years.” Bearing down on the Taliban offered the shortest path toward fostering that transient stability.
Toward that end, Petraeus doubled the number of raids conducted by special operations forces. Typically occurring at night—doors bashed in, inhabitants rousted and searched, suspects shot or dragged off for interrogation—these raids remained deeply unpopular with Afghans. But liquidating insurgents, especially those believed to occupy positions in the Taliban hierarchy, now took precedence over concerns about making friends and influencing people. Petraeus also ramped up the number of air strikes, employing both manned aircraft and drones.
And for the first time since the war began back in 2001, Abrams main battle tanks appeared on the Afghan battlefield—of no particular value in winning hearts and minds, but exceedingly useful in a serious firefight. According to one unnamed senior official quoted by the
“We’ve taken the gloves off.”
By certain quantitative measures, the gloves-off approach produced noteworthy results. Between mid-2010 and mid-2011, ISAF claimed that it had removed from circulation some twelve thousand militants. As one charter member of the COIN-is-the-answer club enthused, Petraeus had engineered “an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine.” The man himself expressed satisfaction. “We’re seeing progress for the first time in many years,” Petraeus proclaimed in the spring of 2011. Although more work remained, “we have halted the momentum of the Taliban in much of the country.”
This was wishful thinking. The insurgency showed few signs of slackening. Although precise numbers were hard to come by, most estimates showed that the total number of Taliban fighters was actually increasing.
The Petraeus crackdown did have this effect: Civilian casualties jumped considerably, as did the number of Afghans—as many as six hundred thousand—displaced from their homes.
Whether coincidentally or as a direct result of the Petraeus approach, a rash of “green-on-blue” incidents—Afghan soldiers attacking ISAF troops—now erupted.
Needless to say, the overall tally of U.S. troops killed and wounded also spiked. In the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency, U.S. casualties in Afghanistan totaled 798. During the Obama surge, with Petraeus in command, they exceeded five thousand per annum.
Meanwhile, the production of opium, principal source of Taliban funding, flourished. After a brief downtick, the expanse of hectares under poppy cultivation headed upward beginning in 2010, a trend that gained momentum over the next several years.
Efforts to create an alternative to the drug economy consumed more money in inflation-adjusted dollars than the United States had spent on the Marshall Plan, with precious little to show for it.
Amidst much talk about the need to root out official corruption, Petraeus assigned Brigadier General McMaster, hero of 73 Easting and Tal Afar, to head up a clean government campaign known as Task Force Shafafiyat (“transparency”). The effort went nowhere. In annual rankings of the world’s kleptocracies, Afghanistan maintained its place near the bottom of the list, edging out only Somalia and North Korea.
Meanwhile, the Afghan forces that ISAF was counting on to assume responsibility for their country’s security remained in apparent perpetuity “a work in progress.”
Even so, President Obama was undiscouraged. In June 2011, with Petraeus preparing to relinquish command of ISAF to yet another American four-star, the president went on national television to pronounce the Afghanistan surge (to which he had assented with great reluctance) a success (which it was not), with “the light of a secure peace” now visible “in the distance” (an expectation devoid of empirical support). Everything was proceeding according to plan, Obama had persuaded himself. As a result, the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. troops could now begin. By the end of 2014, he promised, the war itself would end.
That was the president’s story, and his administration was going to stick to it.
Briefing slides that the journalist Ben Anderson came across in 2011 reduced that story to a handful of bullet points prescribing the “Key Tenets of the Afghan Narrative”:
Notice what is different