General McChrystal: Rolling Stone story a sign of frustration?

The remarks by General McChrystal in Rolling Stone magazine reflect mounting frustration all around with an Afghanistan war effort seemingly in growing disarray – although that doesn’t excuse the conduct, experts say.

Charles Dharapak/AP
General McChrystal, and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry brief reporters ahead of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visit at the White House in this May 10 photo. An article out this week in Rolling Stone magazine depicts Gen. Stanley McChrystal as a lone wolf on the outs with many important figures in the Obama administration.

Underlying the flap over Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s comments in Rolling Stone magazine about his civilian superiors, including in the White House, are tensions resulting from the growing sense that conditions in Afghanistan are not progressing as anticipated.

Even as the US presence in Afghanistan surges to nearly 100,000 soldiers, planned offensives for rooting out Taliban fighters from strongholds are delayed, setbacks mount in areas of earlier progress, and US and allied casualties rise to their highest levels of the nearly 9-year-old war.

In addition, corruption – acknowledged to be one of the Western alliance’s worst enemies – appears to be only growing as money pours in. And the training and building up of Afghan security forces – the backbone of the Western exit strategy – fall further behind schedule.

It is in this context that General McChrystal, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and members of his staff offered Rolling Stone a scathing assessment of Obama administration officials including National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones, Afghanistan-Pakistan special envoy Richard Holbrooke, and even Vice President Joe Biden.

Just one example: Jones is a “clown.”

Yet while McChrystal’s comments reflect the mounting frustration all around with a war effort seemingly in growing disarray, the dismal context does not excuse what experts almost uniformly deem was an egregious disregard for the democratic principle of military subordination to civilian command.

“Obviously the war’s not going well, nor is it apparently where General McChrystal himself thought it would be at this stage of things,” says Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University and a retired Army colonel. “But what stands out is the egregious lapse in professional conduct – not only on the part of McChrystal, but on the part of his subordinates.”

“What this reveals,” he adds, “is a command climate where expressions of contempt for senior civilian officials are permissible.”

While “frustrations” in such a difficult and deteriorating environment may be “understandable,” Mr. Bacevich says, the comments nevertheless represent “unprofessional behavior that is completely intolerable.”

If that is so, is it time to sack McChrystal? The Afghanistan commander, who has apologized for his comments and his own “poor judgment,” has been summoned to the White House to explain himself to President Obama Wednesday.

Yet while some Afghanistan analysts quickly concluded that Mr. Obama must fire McChrystal over his “insubordination,” just as President Truman did to Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1951 over Korean war policy, Bacevich says now is not the time.

If McChrystal is to be fired, it shouldn’t be over this, but for a failure to accomplish the mission he took on and the strategy he pressed for in Afghanistan,” he says.

Removing McChrystal now would hardly seem to further Obama’s goals in Afghanistan. The strategy Obama launched in December is only midway into its first year. Moreover, America’s European partners in Afghanistan, facing mounting public rejection of the war, would be further unnerved by a change at the top, some war analysts say.

That is especially true given the high regard in which US partners generally hold McChrystal. “Everybody agrees that when he’s not talking to journalists, he is a remarkable soldier doing remarkable work on the ground,” says a senior European diplomat in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity.

On Tuesday, the presidential palace in Kabul issued a statement lauding McChrystal as “the best commander” of the war. According to spokesman Waheed Omar, President Hamid Karzai considers the commander “a person of great integrity who has a very good understanding of the Afghan people and the Afghan culture.”

As inappropriate as the comments cited in Rolling Stone were, some war analysts note that they reflect an underlying sense among some in the US military chain of command in Afghanistan that they do not know where Obama stands on the war’s future.

As prominent foreign-policy analyst Leslie Gelb says in a commentary for The Daily Beast, the military doesn’t know where Obama comes down: Does he side with Mr. Biden, who is critical of the manpower-heavy counterinsurgency strategy and advocates a smaller combat force? Or with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who support a conditions-based adjustment of the US force in July 2011?

Wednesday’s White House meeting, while likely to be heated, may have the upside of allowing for a frank White House-military airing of views, analysts like Mr. Gelb say.

That said, appropriate contrition is what will probably save McChrystal’s neck now. But, Bacevich says, the time to fire him may come at the end of the year, when Obama plans to deliver a review of the new Afghanistan strategy – and by which time McChrystal believed he could offer measurable progress on the ground.

“If at that point things are still going as wrong as they seem to be now,” he says, “then that is the time to conclude that we probably have the wrong commander and the wrong strategy.”


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