Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Right idea, wrong way--Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal

In a different time and a different part of the world such indiscretion by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal would have meant swift action, usually death, by the seated government. Such a government cannot allow a dissident to operate...after all perpetuation of a regime's goals must not be challenged and interrupted. People like McChrystal are needed to prod citizens to think and reconsider governmental policies. I do think the venue may have been not the best procedure. Think Watergate.

"McChrystal’s Fate Is Unclear as Obama Cites Poor Judgment"


Helene Cooper and Dexter Filkins

June 22nd, 2010

The New York Times

President Obama said his top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, had used “poor judgment” and Pentagon officials said the general had prepared a letter of resignation, as he flew to Washington on Tuesday to find out whether he would be fired after a magazine article quoted him and his staff disparaging top members of the Obama administration.

“I think it is clear that the article in which he and his team appeared showed poor judgment but I also want to make sure that I talk to him directly before I make a final judgment,” Mr. Obama said, speaking briefly to reporters at the White House in the afternoon. Whatever decision he makes, he said, would be in line with his central focus of what was best for the country and the war in Afghanistan.

Pentagon officials said General McChrystal had prepared a letter of resignation, which would be expected military practice in such a tense situation. But it remained unknown late Tuesday whether Mr. Obama would accept it.

That war effort is lagging, however, and the comments by General McChrystal illustrated the disarray and enmity among the president’s Afghanistan team, as well as the tensions between the president and the military, at a time when casualties are rising sharply and international support falling.

In the article, in the July 8-22 edition of Rolling Stone, General McChrystal or his aides spoke derisively of Vice President Biden, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, National Security Adviser General James L. Jones, Richard C. Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, an unnamed minister in the French government, and even Mr. Obama himself. But in many ways, his comments expose similar remarks others inside the group have made about each other over the past year.

The criticism of the general’s public statements was swift.

The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, called the comments an "enormous mistake" and added that military parents need to know that "the structure where they’re sending their children is one that is capable and mature enough in prosecuting a war as important as Afghanistan." He pointedly refused to say whether General McChrystal would keep his job.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates released a statement criticizing General McChrystal for "a significant mistake" and "poor judgment," while Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was described by a senior aide as "deeply disappointed" in the article and the comments it contained.

Regardless of whether General McChrystal’s resignation is accepted, Mr. Obama will be urging his Afghanistan staff to work together, Mr. Gibbs said. The president, he said, will say that “it is time for everyone involved to put away their petty disagreements, put aside egos, and get to the job at hand.”

But the release of the interview comes as violence in Afghanistan is rising sharply and several central planks of the president’s strategy to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" the Taliban and Al Qaeda have stalled, his top advisers have continued to criticize each other to reporters and international allies alike, usually in private conversations, and almost always off the record.

"Yes, we do hear them disparage each other," said a senior European diplomat who works closely with the United States on Afghanistan strategy. "It’s never good to hear that." Added Bruce O. Riedel, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution who helped the administration formulate its initial Afghan policy: "This flap shows once again that his team is not pulling together, but is engaging in backbiting."

The many conflicts engulfing the Afghanistan team include complaints from Ambassador Eikenberry about Mr. Holbrooke, whose relationship with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, went downhill last year after difficult meetings following the August elections.

The general apologized for his remarks, saying they were “a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened.”

In the article, one of General McChrystal’s aides is quoted as referring to the national security adviser, James L. Jones, as a “clown.”

A senior administration official said Mr. Obama was furious about the article, particularly with the suggestion that he was uninterested and unprepared to discuss the Afghanistan war after he took office.

The article, “The Runaway General,” quotes aides of General McChrystal saying that he was “pretty disappointed” by an Oval Office meeting with Mr. Obama, and that he found the president “uncomfortable and intimidated” during a Pentagon meeting with General McChrystal and several other generals.

The article does not mention any serious policy differences with Mr. Obama, who chose General McChrystal to take charge of a major escalation of American troops and equipment. And most of the critical remarks attributed to General McChrystal appear to come from his aides.

In his statement, General McChrystal said, “I have enormous respect and admiration for President Obama and his national security team, and for the civilian leaders and troops fighting this war and I remain committed to ensuring its successful outcome.” The author of the article — Michael Hastings, a freelance journalist — appears to have been granted intimate access to General McChrystal’s inner circle. Most of the comments seem to have been uttered during unguarded moments, in places like bars and restaurants where the general and his aides gathered to unwind.

Like many in a new generation of senior officers, General McChrystal maintained a remarkably open policy with the news media, bringing them into secret briefings and on his helicopter as he traveled the country. Usually it worked in his favor; reporters gained insights into the general’s strategy and the challenges of the job.

This time, however, it did not. Duncan Boothby, a special assistant to General McChrystal who coordinated the article, resigned, aides said. Many of the offending remarks were picked up when General McChrystal and his team were grounded in Paris in early June by the ash cloud by the volcano in Iceland, they said.

“Everyone kind of relaxed,” an aide said.

A McChrystal aide is quoted saying of Mr. Holbrooke: “The Boss says he’s like a wounded animal. Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to be fired, so that makes him dangerous.”

On another occasion, General McChrystal is described as reacting with exasperation when he receives an e-mail message from Mr. Holbrooke. “Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke. I don’t even want to open it.”

The article also describes a conversation in which General McChrystal and an aide talk about Mr. Biden. Mr. Biden is known to have opposed the decision to escalate the war, preferring instead a slimmed-down plan focused on containing terrorism.

“Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” General McChrystal jokes.

“Biden?” suggests a top adviser. “Did you say ‘Bite me?’ ”

General McChrystal is also quoted making disdainful remarks about Mr. Eikenberry, the ambassador, with whom he has had sharp disagreements over the war. Last year, Mr. Eikenberry sent confidential cables to Washington opposing Mr. Obama’s decision to send more troops.

“He’s one that covers his flanks for the history books,” General McChrystal is quoted as saying. “Now, if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’ ”

The article also describes a meeting in which a soldier vents his frustration over General McChrystal’s tightening of the rules governing the use of airstrikes against suspected insurgents. The soldier, Pfc. Jared Pautsch, is quoted telling General McChrystal that he is endangering the lives of soldiers by forcing them to be too restrained.

Private Pautsch is quoted as telling the general the Americans should just drop a “bomb on the place,” and asking, “What are we doing here?”

Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said early Tuesday in remarks broadcast on CNN that he had “enormous respect for General McChrystal” and warned against overreaction to the remarks. He added, however, that the general would have to “deal with” the fallout from his comments.

“My impression is that all of us would be best served by just backing off and staying cool and calm and not sort of succumbing to the normal Washington twitter,” Mr. Kerry said.

Indeed, the situation put both Mr. Obama and General McChrystal in a vise. As the commander in chief, Mr. Obama could decide to relieve General McChrystal of command, but if he did so, it seems difficult to imagine how his strategy for Afghanistan, now in midstream, could carry on. If General McChrystal keeps his job, however, it seems likely that his reputation — and therefore possibly his effectiveness — will be diminished.

"Team Effort"


George Packer

July 5th, 2010

The New Yorker

In firing General Stanley McChrystal for talking cocky mess-hall trash about his civilian superiors in the company of aides and a writer for Rolling Stone, President Obama reasserted the principle of civilian control of the military. In getting General David Petraeus, the most talented officer of his generation, to accept McChrystal’s command, the President deftly solved his crisis of generalship, which threatened to undermine the mission in Afghanistan. The three-day personnel problem ended as well as the White House could have wanted, but, because it’s a symptom of the larger problem of the war, the McChrystal uproar is going to resonate long after sniping about the old soldier—and about Vice-President “Bite Me”—has faded away.

Every aspect of the war—which is approaching its tenth year, having just superseded Vietnam as the longest in American history—is going badly. Team McChrystal’s casual insubordination reflected a war effort working against itself. McChrystal and Karl Eikenberry, the American Ambassador in Kabul, disliked each other and fought over strategy through cables and leaks. (Eikenberry didn’t think that the addition of tens of thousands of troops could succeed.) Obama allowed the division to fester, giving President Hamid Karzai an opening in which to play American officials off against one another: McChrystal was Karzai’s newest friend, Eikenberry his latest enemy. Richard Holbrooke, the Administration’s special representative for the region, lost Karzai’s confidence a while ago, and it’s not clear that he still has Obama’s. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates remain closely allied with each other, their subordinates, and the White House, but wars are won or lost in the field, not at headquarters.

Last year, in this magazine, Holbrooke described what often happens in government: “People sit in a room, they don’t air their real differences, a false and sloppy consensus papers over those underlying differences, and they go back to their offices and continue to work at cross-purposes, even actively undermining each other.” This is becoming a picture of U.S. policymaking in Afghanistan. Jonathan Alter’s new book, “The Promise,” recounts how, last fall, the military, with a series of leaks, tried to box in the President and force him to send more troops. In return, Obama summoned Petraeus and Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and, sounding like a prosecutor conducting a cross-examination, got them to sign off on a plan to start withdrawing troops in July of 2011, though their opposition to a time line was well known. Then notes from that meeting were leaked, almost certainly by the White House, to corner the military. The time line now means different things to different people, and a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the strategy’s future. The foreign-affairs analyst Leslie Gelb wrote last week that some military officers “truly don’t know where the President stands.”

After replacing McChrystal with Petraeus, Obama scolded his advisers for their bickering. But disarray among top personnel is almost always a sign of a larger incoherence. American goals in Afghanistan remain vague, the means inadequate, the timetable foreshortened. We are nation-building without admitting it, and conducting counterinsurgency on our own clock, not the Afghans’.

The Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency was co-authored by General Petraeus himself, who applied the doctrine with much success in Iraq. But counterinsurgency isn’t a static mold into which the military can pour any war and wait for it to set. When Petraeus took command of the war in Iraq, in 2007, he had already served two tours there—he knew the country as well as any American officer. Afghanistan is less familiar terrain for him; the society is less urban and more fractured than Iraq’s; and there is no sign in Afghan political dynamics of anything like the Sunni awakening that stopped the momentum of the Iraqi insurgency.

With allies like Canada and Holland heading for the exits, American troops are dying in larger numbers than at any point of the war—on bad days, ten or more. The number of Afghan civilian deaths remains high, despite the tightened constraints of McChrystal’s rules of engagement. The military key to counterinsurgency is protection of the population, but the difficulty in securing Marja and the delay of a promised campaign in Kandahar suggest that the majority of Afghan Pashtuns no longer want to be protected by foreign forces. The political goal of counterinsurgency is to strengthen the tie between civilians and their government, but the Afghan state is a shell hollowed out by corruption, and at its center is the erratic figure of President Karzai. Since last fall, when he stole reëlection, Karzai has accused Western governments and media of trying to bring him down, fired the two most competent members of his cabinet, and reportedly threatened to join the Taliban and voiced a suspicion that the Americans were behind an attack on a peace conference he recently hosted in Kabul. In the face of his wild performance, the current American approach is to tiptoe around him, as if he would start behaving better if he could just be settled down. Meanwhile, aid efforts are in a bind: working with the government nourishes corruption; circumventing it further undermines its legitimacy.

No one, however, has been able to come up with an alternative to the current strategy that doesn’t carry great risks. If there were a low-cost way to contain the interconnected groups of extremists in the Hindu Kush—with drones and Special Forces, as Vice-President Biden, among others, has urged—the President would have pursued it. If a return to power of the Taliban, which may well be the outcome of a U.S. withdrawal, did not pose a threat to international security, Obama would have already abandoned Karzai to his fate. But anyone who believes that a re-Talibanized Afghanistan would be a low priority should read the kidnapping narratives of two American journalists, Jere Van Dyk and David Rohde, who were held by the Taliban, along with the autobiography of the former Taliban official known as Mullah Zaeef. Together, these accounts show that the years since 2001 have radicalized the insurgents and imbued them with Al Qaeda’s global agenda. Tactically and ideologically, it’s more and more difficult to distinguish local insurgents from foreign jihadists.

American policy is drifting toward a review, scheduled for December, and Obama is trapped—not by his generals but by the war. It takes great political courage to face such a situation honestly, but if in a year’s time the war looks much the way it does now, or worse, Obama will have to force the public to deal with the likely reality: Americans leaving, however slowly; Afghanistan slipping into ethnic civil war, with many more Afghan deaths; Pakistan backing the Pashtun side; Al Qaeda seizing the chance to expand its safe haven. These consequences would require a dramatically different U.S. strategy, and a wise Administration would unify itself around the need to think one through before next summer.

The Promise: President Obama, Year One


Jonathan Alter

ISBN-10: 1439101191
ISBN-13: 978-1439101193

In The Promise: President Obama, Year One, Jonathan Alter, one of the country’s most respected journalists and historians, uses his unique access to the White House to produce the first inside look at Obama’s difficult debut.

What happened in 2009 inside the Oval Office? What worked and what failed? What is the president really like on the job and off-hours, using what his best friend called “a Rubik’s Cube in his brain?" These questions are answered here for the first time. We see how a surprisingly cunning Obama took effective charge in Washington several weeks before his election, made trillion-dollar decisions on the stimulus and budget before he was inaugurated, engineered colossally unpopular bailouts of the banking and auto sectors, and escalated a treacherous war not long after settling into office.

The Promise is a fast-paced and incisive narrative of a young risk-taking president carving his own path amid sky-high expectations and surging joblessness. Alter reveals that it was Obama alone—“feeling lucky”—who insisted on pushing major health care reform over the objections of his vice president and top advisors, including his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who admitted that “I begged him not to do this.”

Alter takes the reader inside the room as Obama prevents a fistfight involving a congressman, coldly reprimands the military brass for insubordination, crashes the key meeting at the Copenhagen Climate Change conference, and bounces back after a disastrous Massachusetts election to redeem a promise that had eluded presidents since FDR.

In Alter’s telling, the real Obama is an authentic, demanding, unsentimental, and sometimes overconfident leader. He adapted to the presidency with ease and put more “points on the board” than he is given credit for, but neglected to use his leverage over the banks and failed to connect well with an angry public. We see the famously calm president cursing leaks, playfully trash-talking his advisors, and joking about even the most taboo subjects, still intent on redeeming more of his promise as the problems mount.

This brilliant blend of journalism and history offers the freshest reporting and most acute perspective on the biggest story.

1 comment:

Timray said...

a brilliant tactician to the end...i believe President Obama was out smarted on this one....