June 22, 2010

General McChrystal - what were you thinking?

After the McChrystal-Rolling Stone article story hit the newsstands today, the initial question from anyone who has ever worn a uniform was, "What was General McChrystal thinking?" You do not make, or allow your staff to make, public statements belittling the President and Commander in Chief.

Whether the statements have merit or not is immaterial - it is not conducive to the mission of the armed forces for four-star generals to publicly question the chain of command. Privately, however, I would expect the general to make his objections and opinions known to the leadership, but once the decisions are made and the orders given, you salute and execute. Regardless of personal opinion of the qualifications of those in the chain of command, it is still the lawful chain of command. Executing those orders is part of the oath you take as an officer or member of the U.S. armed forces.

That said, perhaps there is more to this story than a mere faux pas on the part of a 30-year career soldier, a man who has not only served with some of the most elite special operations forces in the world, but commanded them in combat and yet-unheralded black operations. It is inconceivable to me that General McChrystal did not consider what he was doing when he granted almost unfettered staff access to a third-rate, avowedly anti-war publication like Rolling Stone. He had to know that the coverage would be unfavorable at best, and outright defamatory at worst.

There are precedents of generals not agreeing with the Commander in Chief - Truman and MacArthur, Johnson and his generals during Vietnam, Carter and his generals over his disastrous handling of the Iran crisis and the return of the Panama Canal, Clinton and his failure to approve requests for proper support for American forces deployed to Somalia, Clinton and his generals on the lack of response to terrorist attacks, etc. For the most part, these objections were raised in private via the chain of command - the proper way.

Unfortunately, many Presidents lack any military experience and have little grasp of the complexity and gravity of military operations - President Obama is the poster boy for this group. His deliberations and slow decision making process on a proper strategy for the war in Afghanistan are indicative of these characteristics. These presidents view war as just another political activity, usually with disastrous results for the men and women who have to carry them out.

The prime example of a president and politicos that "don't get it" is the fixed withdrawal date. (See my earlier Gates gets it - the others, not so much....) A fixed withdrawal date is nothing more than a signal to the enemy of how long they have to hold out or merely wait until the Americans leave and they can launch the real offensive to achieve their goals. It is to the antagonist a date that the victory begins.

President Obama has dictated date certain withdrawals in both Iraq and Afghanistan, against the counsel of both Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and anyone in a uniform. In Iraq, fortunately a surge during the last years of the Bush Administration and increased capabilities of the Iraqi military and security forces have made the withdrawal date irrelevant.

Unfortunately, that is not the case in Afghanistan. As General McChrystal has said, the Afghan forces are not yet capable of providing security over areas taken from the Taliban by American forces - the recent operation in Marjah is but one example. Their poor performance is the reason the expected offensive against the Taliban in Kandahar has been delayed.

Complicating this is the Obama Administration's failure to provide the manpower and resources that General McChrystal has requested to accomplish the mission assigned to him by the President. The Commander in Chief not only provides the mission, he must provide the resources. President Obama did the former, but not the latter.

I can only surmise that General McChrystal has determined that given the current set of circumstances, he cannot accomplish the mission given him by the President. Rather than preside over a losing combat operation, he has chosen to resign and to go out in a way that might actually change the situation. His interview in Rolling Stone has certainly taken over the news cycle and focused the country's attention on the war in Afghanistan. If he falls on his sword, but there is a public outcry for the President to properly resource the war effort, perhaps his actions were not in vain.

If that was his intention, he may succeed. If not, I have no idea what he was thinking.