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My (Belated) Opinion and 3 Points on McChrystal and Rolling Stone

Since I was on a mini-honeymoon last week, doing an instant response to the epic Rolling Stone article wasn’t going to happen. However, I swung by a Borders to buy some magazines for my flight back to Fort Campbell, and I was able to pick up a copy of Michael Hasting’s article on General McChrystal. So here is my contribution to the echo chamber: one opinion and 3 additional thoughts.

My Opinion
More than anything, it blows my mind that General McChrystal gave these quotes on-the-record. My gut reaction is shock, followed by regretful acknowledgment that Obama did what he had to do. The fact that we might benefit from bringing in General Petraeus helps to ease the pain. We need to be able to fire ineffective senior officers, and fortunately we had a fantastic General waiting in the wings.

Thought 1: Hastings writes a lot of opinions as if they are fact. Take his last paragraph. The author says that, “the delay underscores the fundamental flaws of counterinsurgency,” “the massive influx of aid championed by McChrystal is likely only to make things worse,” and then “counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war.” Each claim is stated as if academics, military theorists and bloggers don’t debate them on a daily basis.

And those aren’t the only examples. This is probably going to be the most read article on Afghanistan this year, and a lot of military/counter-insurgency novices will be sorely misled by Hasting’s opinions dressed up as “COIN facts.”

Thought 2: Hastings over/mis-uses the term “counter-insurgency.” Now I usually hate quoting articles by whole paragraph, but Hasting’s provides a simply bizarre, crazy-large, definition of COIN:

“COIN, as the theory is known, is the new gospel of the Pentagon brass, a doctrine that attempts to square the military's preference for high-tech violence with the demands of fighting protracted wars in failed states. COIN calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation's government – a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve. The theory essentially rebrands the military, expanding its authority (and its funding) to encompass the diplomatic and political sides of warfare: Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps. In 2006, after Gen. David Petraeus beta-tested the theory during his "surge" in Iraq, it quickly gained a hardcore following of think-tankers, journalists, military officers and civilian officials. Nicknamed "COINdinistas" for their cultish zeal, this influential cadre believed the doctrine would be the perfect solution for Afghanistan.”

I am a COINdinista to the core, have no doubt about that, but I use the term to define a specifc brand of warfare in specialized circumstances. Hastings gets most of counter-insurgency theory right, but he still talks about it as if it were a massive conspiracy designed by the military-industrial complex. Sorry I just don’t see that, and using biblical language overstates the zeal that the Army actually feels for COIN.

Thought 3: This all leads me to the crux of the article: he wants the US out of Afghanistan, what he calls an un-winnable war. His second to last sentence sums it up, “Winning, it would seem, is not really possible.” The author isn’t anti-McChrystal; in fact he kind of likes him. No, Michael Hastings is anti-Afghanistan war and wants to show the war in a bad light. Period.

I applaud his journalistic skill; this article again proves why we need long form journalism. Hasting’s descriptions of General McChystal provide an amazing insight to a fascinating man; too bad the rest of the article is polluted by opinion and bias that are unneeded.

We have other thoughts on Hasting’s take on the rules of engagement too. We’ll publish those later because they will be much more controversial.

(Would you like to know more? We recommend the Starbuck link-drop at Wings Over Iraq. Check it out.)

eight comments

Yeah, so I have a bunch of thoughts, but Michael told me they aren’t that interesting.

What I thought was funny was that the balance between honesty, politics and media, it all made me think of the war memoir project. And a reporter had to come in to dig it all out.

That said, I don’t think the reporter presented a fair balance. His article is incredibly negative, and that’s saying something if I think that.

Michael. Congratulations on your marriage. Now back to McChrystal. If Eric’s comments aren’t worth noting than mine probably aren’t either. It occurred to me that M.had or has some sort of a “death wish” ala Freud. I mean he has been raised in the paranoid world of top secret military stuff and knows what reporters do and don’t do. I think he may drink a little too much and thus his guard is down. But I can’t help but believe a big part of him wanted out. My question is why he didn’t do it the right way. Why didn’t he arrange a meeting with Obama and tell him that the people he has in Afghanistan aren’t working out; they don’t get along with Karzai and are undermining the mission. He could have voiced his complaints politely and offered his resignation if Obama did not agree to change certain personnel.

Now let me ask you something. In view of the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan and the way the Taliban has married into the local population and the differences between the tribal society of Iraq and Afghanistan, do you really think that COIN strategies will work to win the war there. I mean what war are we trying to win. I know this sounds terrible but my own thoughts are to remove the ground troops and simply keep a few black ops operations (CIA Seal 6 etc) in there to assassinate major terrorist leaders working with anti Taliban war lords or whoever ….. we are producing more terrorists by our very presence. The problem there of course is that I believe such operations should be approved by congress and I know they won’t be. Furthermore for everyone we kill, another will be born.

Perhaps I am completely off base with all I have said above except about M. “death wish” which he is not aware of consciously I am sure. I did like his rebellious quality however; the fact that he’s not a typical politician.

@ jaylo – I actually think your Freudian death wish hypothesis/interpretation is right on. How else to explain someone so successful and so important doing something so stupid/self-destructive?

That said, on Afghanistan. We spent eight years ignoring the country; we haven’t really tried a COIN solution yet.

You guys are right, it is interesting to ask if McChrystal had a death wish, but I think that might be an exaggeration. The main issue seems to be that he let his staff get very very tight, and loose lipped. This works in Special Ops where you can classify the hell out of everything and keep it secret, not so much when you are the top guy in Afghanistan, a very political role.

I still think COIN can work in Afghanistan, I just think starting to implement it in 2009 was waiting to long (with some units starting it around 2007 just with not enough people.

The problem with the counter-terrorist model is that up until 2006, that is what the US was doing in Afghanistan, and it allowed the Taliban to completely regroup in Pakistan and come charging back. I don’t see how if we pull out everyone except CT guys the the Taliban won’t completely take over the country, creating tons more terrorists.

I think it hit on a lot of the reasons why he isn´t favor of the mission in Afghanistan. I don´t think he even interviewed Karzai personally, but the way his staff gave out information about him and the way he is characterized in the article doesn´t sound to flattering. I´m wondering what the rest of McChrystal´s staff really thought of the mission themselves.

I´m wondering if McChrystal and his staff have always been so loose speaking why hasn´t it been covered before? I heard some of the material for the article was taken while McChrystal and his staff were delayed in Berlin due to the volcano in Iceland, and were drinking the time away in Germany. I personally think McChrystal and his staff may have been like this around several journalists before and always had a fairly normal article come out of it before, if for nothing else than for the reason that most journalists are afraid of losing important contacts. If this article is an indictment of anything to me, its an indictment of media that normally justs regurgitates spin, and people being shocked when something controversial is actually published.

I had originally written a short essay on what I thought about the article in Rolling Stone, then decided that it was stupid to wrap myself up in one journalists negative ideals about the war and General McChrystal.

What I do want to touch on quickly is that White House Democrats had huge aversions to Petraeus when he was “Bush’s General” back in 2007. Now he’s Obamas pick for McChrystals replacement and suddenly everyone is praising the President for his political prowess and insight for picking Petraeus. Seems like a bunch of yes men to me. Just a thought. My main comment is that I dont think COIN will ever work under this administration. It’s too little, too late. If it was implemented anytime from 2001 until around 2007 good things could have come from it. We became more concerned with the goings on of OIF and less concerned with the ability to defeat the Taliban and educate the local populace. There are exceptions to the rule, but for the most part its been more of an occupation than a real country wide mission to remove the insurgency from Afghanistan. You already know this Sir, but my complaint is, why unleash a fighting force on a country only to nit-pick on what they can or can’t do? I can’t shoot into a Mosque that the terrorists who just shot at me ran in to? Just because it will offend the locals who are aiding the enemy anyway? That’s bullshit. Why couldn’t we go in to this war with a real goal to focus on? A real goal, not George Bush-redneck hype. I really don’t see it getting any better under this administration either, but for reasons on the opposite end or the political spectrum. Congratulations on getting married Sir. Both of you are lucky to have each other.

@ chris c – reporters almost certainly heard McC talk this way before, but I don’t think it is a bad thing. we need some reporters to have a relationship with generals, but not all. I listened to an NPR story this weekend on it, on “on the media” check it out

@ Obie – I think you nailed it on the phrase “ too little too late” we never really gave coin a chance to work.

@Obie- First, who are you calling sir? Second, I do totally agree that we started too late in COIN. However, I still think we shoot too much at targets that aren’t there. If I think our COIN has a major weakness, it is a lack of good intel. We target the wrong people more than anything.