On Saturday Bruce Ackerman, a notoriously liberal Yale Law School Professor, took to the editorial pages of the Washington Post to criticize General McChrystal. In ”A General’s Public Pressure” he writes:
In a speech in London on Thursday, Gen. Stanley McChrystal publicly intervened in the debate over Afghanistan. Vice President Biden has suggested that we focus on fighting al-Qaeda and refrain from using our troops to prop up the government of President Hamid Karzai. But when this strategic option was raised at his presentation, McChrystal said it was a formula for “Chaos-istan.” When asked whether he would support it, he said, “The short answer is: No.”
Ackerman says, “As commanding general in Afghanistan, McChrystal has no business making such public pronouncements.”
Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, writing in today’s Post argues that although his public statements were perhaps “too blunt and impolitic” and that if he had a “do-over” he might have “made different, more nuanced statements”, McChrystal is nonetheless “A General Within Bounds.” O’Hanlon, I think, has it just about right. The key is in his opening sentence:
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has come under fire for making public comments about the war. While answering questions after an Oct. 1 speech — in which he avoided taking sides in the policy debate — McChrystal challenged a popular alternative to the approach that President Obama sent him to Afghanistan to pursue.
In criticizing the “counterterrorism strategy” being proposed by Vice President Biden, he was merely challenging a strategy that President Obama had already rejected last spring when he personally chose General McChrystal for the job. That’s why O’Hanlon is correct in calling the comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy the “Obama/McChystal plan”:
The Obama/McChrystal plan is classic counterinsurgency and focuses on protecting the Afghan population while strengthening Afghan security forces and government. McChrystal was asked about a “counterterrorism” strategy that would purportedly contain al-Qaeda with much lower numbers of American troops, casualties and other costs. McChrystal did not try to force the president’s hand on whether to increase the foreign troop presence in Afghanistan. The general critiqued an option that is at direct odds with Obama’s policy and conflicts with the experiences of the U.S. military this decade. That is not fundamentally out of line for a commander.
Indeed, as O’Hanlon says, in criticizing the counterterrorism option, McChrystal has actually “understated his case.” There is a near consensus among the uniformed military leadership that the counterterrorism option is a non-starter. By all accounts General McChystal’s view on this matter is shared by General Petraeus, the Commander of U.S. Central Command, and by Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Not only that, but this particular view of a counterterrorism strategy runs deep and wide in the ranks.
Here, it is worth calling attention to a Thomas Ricks report on the comments of battle-tested commanders at a recent counterinsurgency conference sponsored by the Marine Corps:
No one quite spoke much directly to the issue, which would be “inappropriate” — Washington’s favorite word. But the debate of a COIN approach, with a sustained widespread presence vs. a counterterrorism approach (that is, in-and-out raiding) was constantly in the background. The third option, simply playing for time while building up Afghan security forces, didn’t seem to be treated as a starter.
“If you’re taking a raiding approach … you’re really vacating the battlefield,” said the ever-quotable Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster.
One of the most interesting panels was made up of three Marine colonels who commanded battalions in successful counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not surprisingly, they were the most vocal people all day in support of the McChrystal plan. What you need is a force that simultaneously goes after the enemy and protects the population, they all agreed. But, observed Col. J.D. Alford, “We’re a completely enemy-centric force” in Afghanistan. Alford, who commanded the 3rd Battalion of the 6th Marines in northwest Iraq in 2005, said we need to be much closer to the Afghan security forces, living and working alongside them.
On the McChrystal plan, Alford added, “We’ve got to do some real math and tell some real truth … if we are going to do population-centric COIN.”
When it all comes down to it, General McChrystal has simply done the math and told the unvarnished truth.
O’Hanlon notes that “Some might agree with all this yet say that McChrystal still had no business wading into policy waters at this moment. It is true that commanders, as a rule, should not do so.” But what happens when a truly bad idea gets floated to the public?
When . . . those [ideas] already tried and discredited are debated as serious proposals, they do not deserve intellectual sanctuary. McChrystal is personally responsible for the lives of 100,000 NATO troops who are suffering severe losses partially as a result of eight years of a failed counterterrorism strategy under a different name. He has a right to speak if a policy debate becomes too removed from reality. Put another way, we need to hear from him because he understands this reality far better than most in Washington.
But there is another reason to speak out on this. Call it, “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me”:
Many of those criticizing McChrystal wish, in retrospect, that our military command in 2002-03 had been more vocal in opposing Donald Rumsfeld’s planning for the Iraq invasion that assumed a minimal need for post-invasion stabilization forces. This was an unusually bad idea that military leadership went along with, at least publicly, partly out of a sense that they had no prerogative to intercede. The result was one of the most botched operations in U.S. military history until the 2007 surge partially salvaged things.
For the current military leadership, and for me personally, this is not history, it is memory. A bad memory! Many of us were simply confounded by the lack of planning for what the military called “Phase IV” (“post-invasion stabilization forces”) in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Those who tried to raise the issue were told, in effect, to go back into their cubby holes, since “they”—someone “up there”—had it covered. They didn’t.
You can bet that McChrystal and Petraeus and Mullen and McMaster and Alford and countless numbers of now mid-level military officers and NCOs who had to pay the price have learned the lesson. O’Hanlon couldn’t have concluded his article any better: “But the counterterrorism option is not a viable way to help stabilize Afghanistan. Because Obama called Afghanistan “a necessary war” seven weeks ago, it would have verged on professional malpractice for McChrystal to pretend otherwise.”
Of course, strictly speaking it is still possible, albeit implausible, that those who are urging a “light footprint” counterterrorism strategy are right and the uniformed military leadership and the experienced warfighters are wrong. In which case, President Obama will have to find a few military flag officers to execute the “Biden Plan,” in good conscience. In which case we should all wish him good luck, because he’s going to need it.”