By this time tomorrow, General Stanley McChrystal may well be out of a job.
McChrystal, the Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has been summoned to the White House for a meeting with the President. At issue: an article in the next issue of Rolling Stone, which offers a lengthy portrait of General McChrystal and contains less-than-flattering comments about members of the Obama Administration.
The publication won't be on news stands until Friday, and (so far) the article isn't available on the magazine's website. But Rolling Stone has already released short excerpts from the article, which depict a general at odds--some might even say at war--with his superiors. Michael Hasting's piece is called "Runaway General," and based on what's been published so far, it's easy to see why. From an AP account of the article and its fallout:
In the interview, McChrystal he said he felt betrayed by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, the man the White House chose to be his diplomatic partner. If Eikenberry had the same doubts, McChrystal said he never expressed them until a leaked internal document threw a wild card into the debate over whether to add more troops last November. In the document, Eikenberry said Afghan President Hamid Karzai was not a reliable partner for the counterinsurgency strategy McChrystal was hired to execute.
McChrystal accused the ambassador of giving himself cover.
"Here's one that covers his flank for the history books," McChrystal told the magazine. "Now, if we fail, they can say 'I told you so.'"
Other critical comments came from senior McChrystal aides, most of whom are quoted anonymously. But it's clear their thinking mirrors that of General McChrystal. As the Washington Post describes some of their remarks:
Referring to Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama's senior envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, one McChrystal aide is quoted as saying: "The Boss says he's like a wounded animal. Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he's going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous."
On one occasion, McChrystal appears to react with exasperation when he receives an e-mail from Holbrooke. "Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke," McChrystal says, according to the article. "I don't even want to read it."
The story also features an exchange in which McChrystal and some of his aides appear to mock Vice President Biden, who opposed McChrystal's troop surge recommendation last year and instead urged a more focused emphasis on counterterrorism operations. Preparing for a speech he is about to give at a French military academy, McChrystal "wonders aloud" whether he will questioned about the well-publicized differences in opinion between himself and Biden.
"Are you asking me about Vice President Biden? Who's that?" McChrystal says with a laugh, trying out the line as a hypothetical response to the anticipated query.
"Biden?" chimes in an aide who is seated nearby, and who is not named in the article. "Did you say Bite me?"
The piece also depicts a strained relationship between General McChrystal and President Obama. Aides said it was clear that Mr. Obama "knew nothing" about McChrystal when they appeared at the White House event where he was named the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. A few months later, McChrystal was summoned to Air Force One for a "dressing down" after publicly criticizing officials who favored scaled-back operations in Afghanistan.
With the piece slated for publication in just three days, General McChrystal is in full apology mode. Along with a public statement, he has also placed phone calls to officials mocked in the Rolling Stone article. But it won't be enough to save his job. McChrystal has been summoned to Washington for the monthly White House meeting on Iraq and Afghanistan (he normally participates by video teleconference). The appearance will give him an opportunity to apologize once again--and receive his walking papers.
Judging from the tone of the article (or more correctly, what we've seen so far), it's clear that McChrystal has made lots of enemies in high places. People like Joe Biden and National Security Advisor Jim Jones (described as a "clown" by one McChrystal aide) won't miss an opportunity to send the general packing.
During his tenure in Kabul, McChrystal has emerged as a forceful advocate for a large-scale, long-term commitment to the Afghan conflict, a position that doesn't sit well in the White House. With McChrystal out of the picture, Mr. Obama can appoint a commander who's more malleable, and perhaps willing to go along with Biden's "surge alternative," which advocated greater use of UAVs to attack terrorist targets in Afghanistan, while reducing ground operations. That could allow the administration to accelerate its planned drawndown in Afghanistan, beginning next year.
To be fair, there is more than an element of truth in the comments of General McChrystal and his staff. Could someone tell us what Richard Holbrooke has contributed to the war effort in Afghanistan? And, why would anyone take Joe Biden seriously as a military strategist? Remember, he's the same guy who declared Iraq was "lost" before the surge and advocated partitioning the country. As for Mr. Jones, he has been long been regarded as an ineffectual National Security Advisor, with less influence on key policy decisions than his predecessors.
We can also imagine that President Obama knew next-to-nothing about the general he appointed to lead the war effort in Afghanistan. In today's Washington Examiner, Byron York (aptly) describes the POTUS as a "deeply flawed commander-in-chief" who doesn't want to be fighting a war on terror. But, Mr. York is also correct in observing that Mr. Obama, like all presidents, is entitled to military commanders who will carry out his policies without public complaint.
And, this is a clearly a mess of McChrystal's making. The civilian press aide who pushed for the Rolling Stone profile has resigned, but the project clearly had the general's blessing. It is simply stunning that a senior military officer--and his staff--thought it would be a great idea to have a reporter follow them around for a period of weeks and discuss sensitive relationships with senior members of the U.S. government. This was a disaster waiting to happen.
Ironically, the same term has been used to describe McChrystal and his past dealings with civilian officials. As a retired military officer--and former colleague of the general--told Byron York:
“Those of us who knew him would unanimously tell you that this was just a matter of time,” the man says. “He talks this way all the time. I’m surprised it took this long for it to rear its ugly head.”
“He had great disdain for anyone, as he said, ‘in a suit,’” the former military man continues. “I was shocked one day in a small group of people when he took [former Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld to task in front of all of us.”
“The other thing about him is that he is probably one of the more arrogant, cocksure military guys I have run across. That in itself is not necessarily a character flaw, but when you couple it with his great disdain for civilians, it’s a very volatile combination.”
The tragedy is that General McChrystal has inadvertently destroyed his career at a critical time in the Afghan conflict. Assuming that McChrystal is fired tomorrow, allied forces in Afghanistan will be without their top commander as they move into Taliban strongholds in the south. While subordinate commanders can certainly execute the offensive, the process of evaluating results and determining follow-on strategy rests with the top general, a post that will be vacant (we assume) in a matter of hours.
Yet, there may actually be a silver lining in this debacle. As a commander, McChrystal's greatest flaw has been his slavish devotion to unnecessarily restrictive rules of engagement, limiting our troops' ability to obtain needed fire support. In a recent column George Will reported on a nighttime firefight in Afghanistan; under fire, a U.S. unit requested an illumination round to light up the battlefield. Their request was denied, for fear that the flare would somehow damage Afghan huts and fields on the ground. The odds of that happening, as any NCO will tell you, are approximately zero.
We can only hope that McChrystal's replacement will press for more realistic ROE. Limiting fire support has actually resulted in greater casualties for American forces, with no appreciable increase in Afghan support for the war. But viewing McChrystal's dismissal as an opportunity is little more than a pipe dream. His replacement will be kept on a very short leash and (if anything) the rules of engagement may become more restrictive, in an effort to limit collateral damage.
One more thing: it's also a safe bet that our next commander in Afghanistan won't be sitting down with Rolling Stone anytime soon.
ADDENDUM: McChrystal's "man-caused" disaster reminds us, in some regards, of another high-profile military dismissal. In September 1990, then-Air Force Chief of Staff, General Michael Dugan was fired for "poor judgment at a sensitive time." Dugan's crime? In the early days of Operation Desert Shield, General Dugan discussed potential targeting strategy against Iraq, including efforts to kill Saddam Hussein. Dugan made the remarks to a handful of reporters who were traveling with him. After just 79 days on the job, Dugan was fired by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.
Apparently, both General Dugan and his public affairs team were stunned by the fallout. One PA officer described the press contingent as "friendlies," reporters who could be trusted to keep the information on background, or attribute it to a unnamed "senior official." Dugan and his p.r. flacks clearly misjudged their buddies in the press.
Now, twenty years later, Stan McChrystal is learning the same, hard lesson. Opening up to members of the fourth estate is never a good idea for senior military officers; the price is sometimes measured by the end of your career.
A few more thoughts: Colonel Jack Jacobs, an MSNBC military analyst (a Medal of Honor recipient in Vietnam) says McChrystal's views are widely held in the armed forces. While Jacobs believes General McChrystal will be fired (or resign) over the article, he contends that most members of the military will come down on the side of the general.
Across the pond, Telegraph Media Group foreign editor Adrian Michaels says McChrystal has nothing to apologize for.
There was a copy of the article available online until recently, which I’ve read, and some excerpts and a news report about it here and here. Basically, the general – or “THE RUNAWAY GENERAL” as he is hysterically referred to – has been the victim of journalist hype. It is the magazine’s editors that call the White House “wimps”, and it is the author that uses almost every f-word in the piece, gratuitously, gratingly, and not while quoting anyone. The only f-word used by someone else is a Brit saying how much some people love McChrystal’s habit of showing up on patrol.
At the WaPo "PostPartisan" blog, Jackson Diehl reaches the same conclusion, but for a different reason. He says the Rolling Stone article highlights deep divisions over Afghan policy within the president's national security team--divisions that Mr. Obama has allowed for much too long.