Rachel Maddow Lasers in on McChrystal’s Counterinsurgency Doctrine

Rolling Stone writer Michael Hastings was on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show last night, where he expressed surprise that his bombshell interview with General Stanley McChrystal was causing such an uproar as to lead to McChrystal tendering his resignation. However, it wasn’t a shock to much of anyone else after reading McChrystal’s comments wherein he showed staggering disrespect and contempt for his civilian boss and indeed the administration at large.

What may come as a surprise to the General is that his actions are casting doubts regarding McChrystal’s own counterinsurgency approach in Afghanistan, and I would take that a step further and suggest that it’s time that civilian political leadership take back control of our military strategy, rather than relying so heavily on professional military officers.

General McChyrstal: The Runaway General

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Yesterday was the unveiling of General McChrystal’s profile in Rolling Stone. It didn’t go well. Not only is the General is shown as a sort of locker room frat boy rather than a serious leader, but his disdain for his boss and Commander in Chief was palpable. If you’ve never been around anyone who’s enlisted, this might not strike you as it does those who are familiar with the military’s strict adherence to the chain of command. This is simply not done.

It’s not done because there would be chaos if the lower ranks questioned and or undermined the authority of their boss during battle. But it’s also not done precisely for the reason it should not have been done here: it leaves us wide open to attacks from the very enemy the General has sworn to protect us from. Now why would this passionate, fierce man show the soft underbelly of the American machine to the enemy? Why would McChrystal knowingly show the weakness in an international publication? Perhaps the frustrations from a war that can’t be “won” are too much for the General — but regardless of the reasons, his lack of discipline can’t be ignored. Our national security at risk.

Rachel Maddow interviewed Rolling Stones writer Michael Hastings while he was in Afghanistan. Her questions quickly and pointedly zeroed in on McChrystal’s counterinsrugency strategy, which relies upon civilian and governmental unity with the military strategy.

Transcription courtesy of Rachel Maddow blog:

MADDOW: Michael, I know that in the piece, I mean General McChrystal comes across as incredibly impolitic but not in an unflattering light. You definitely portray him as a true believer in counter-insurgency. But counterinsurgency means military force combined with a lot of non-military force and he and his inner-circle talk complete smack about everybody on the nonmilitary side, so how does that make sense? How do they reconcile that?

HASTINGS: Well I think one of the things about General McChrystal and whether or not he’s impolitic: just look at his public statements. What he said recently about Marja which was an operation in southern Afghanistan, was that it was a ‘bleeding ulcer’. he’s saying in public about the war effort or he thinks he’s saying in private. I think that that’s a big issue in terms of counterinsurgency, the relationship between the civilian military side. I think that’s always very tricky in terms of the operation, and i think part of the problem is that there’s a military says they actually buy into these political solutions, they’re the most preferred solution, the one to use is to use force, which is sort of what they’re inherently good at.

MADDOW: It’s sort of a hollowed out insurgency idea that you talk a lot about military force but maybe it’s not as important a part of it when it comes down to it. You describe Michael that the hardcore proponents of counter insurgency of COIN as having a sort of cultish zeal. The COINdenistas, which is something we’ve talked about in the past. Is there something about the idea of counterinsurgency that essentially requires people to be disdainful of outside views, about the wider impact of it of it, about the difficulty of selling it politically?

HASTINGS: I was just rereading David Halberstan’s “The Best and the Brightest,” and one of the things described is Kennedy in his 1961 being very excited about these new theories of counterinsurgency. I think what anyone has to look at it is where the counterinsurgents here draw their inspiration from and most of the examples they draw from are not very promising. the French in Algeria in 1962 and then the us in Vietnam in 1965 –both ended in defeat. Now they claim that they were military victories but if they were just victories outright they all would have worked but in fact there’s not really too many promising examples that they can really point to.


At which point, Rachel zeros in with her laser intensity:

MADDOW: Of course the way that General McChrystal got this job is because General McKiernan was rather summarily relieved of his responsibility um in Afghanistan the previous top commander in country. Does the counterinsurgency doctrine and strategy survive another change at the top if it has to happen? Are there enough true believers just among the ranks of soldiers and officers who you’ve been dealing with there while you’ve been reporting?

HASTINGS: “I think counterinsurgency is the only solution that they’ve come up with that they really want to do. It seems like there’s not much stomach for actually changing our strategy, drawing down to say 50,000 and doing more counter-terrorism mission. I think you change the top, but the problem remains. I mean, I think the counterinsurgency was set in motion and I believe even if you change the top, it’s not going to make too much of a difference because I think the problems of these things –one of these things I’m talking about — in terms of long protracted conflicts that democratic societies wage usually in, you know, developing nations, is that they take on a momentum of their own. We went into Afghanistan after September 11 with the explicit goal not to get stuck in a quagmire. Anyone who even used the word “quagmire” was mocked mercilessly. Some years later, we’re exactly where we set out not to be — in a quagmire, and it’s a quagmire we knowingly walked into.

Not only did McChrystal’s impolitic criticisms of the civilian side of the administration betray the very military values of loyalty, commitment and patriotism that McChrystal has stood for in terms of the counterinsurgency doctrine, but ironically his doing so draws all eyes back to the legitimacy not of the administration, but of this war and of this strategy.

We were three years into the war when the Army published its updated counterinsurgency doctrine:

“The manual codifies an important lesson of insurgencies: it takes more than the military to win. “There are more than just lethal operations involved in a counterinsurgency campaign,” said Conrad Crane, director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute, in Carlisle, Pa., and one of the leaders of the effort.

He said the team working on the manual decided early on to emphasize the interagency aspect of counterinsurgency fights. “The military is only one piece of the puzzle,” Crane said. “To be successful in a counterinsurgency, you have to get contributions from a lot of different agencies, international organizations, non-governmental organizations and host-nation organizations. There are so many people involved to make counterinsurgency successful.”

All of these organizations bring important weapons to the campaign, “and you’ve got to bring unity of effort if you can to make it effective,” he said. ”

Unity, you say? It seems as if McChrystal’s Rolling Stone interview spits in the face of the very core of a COIN campaign that he himself has advocated and fought for. Rachel was right on with her line of thought. Does the COIN strategy make sense? Is it the best course of action? McChrystal is an expert on military strategy – this is why he is in this position, so it was understandable that the President gave weight and heft to his advice. However, the military is run by a civilian for a reason…and we might just be seeing exactly WHY in this Runaway General Saga. War does change people. And no person is infallible in their judgment or impervious to the challenges of long-term combat. And like many Generals, it may be that this one would be lost without his war.

At any rate, while we might not agree with McChrystal on his strategy (or much else), he has also been a dedicated General and served this country with great distinction. There should be no doubt that while he appears to have been misguided in his execution, he thought he was doing the right thing. This is a sad day for him, for this country, and for the troops serving under him whose morale has to be suffering right now.

The question on everyone’s mind shouldn’t be if the President will fire McChrystal, but more importantly, will McChrystal’s disobedience to his own strategy bring about a rethinking of the strategy in Afghanistan and if so, can and will this administration take hold of the reins and put an end to this right wing pandering to the military as all-knowing deity to be worshiped. The military is one vital aspect of our government — but it is not in charge and Obama needs to make that very clear.

The civilian control ideal (see The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations) is based on the idea that the civilian leader is more objective than the in-the-trenches General. Civilian control of the military includes proper subordination of the military to the ends of policy — as determined by civilian authority. That objective authority is the President of the United States. The people elected Barack Obama, not General McChrystal, to lead and be in charge of our war policies.

We will discover the answer to at least one of those questions today.

Samuel Adams in 1768: “Even when there is a necessity of the military power, within a land, a wise and prudent people will always have a watchful and jealous eye over it.”

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