June 22, 2010

Firing McChrystal: Weighing the Risks

I have been struck by the degree to which a lot of smart friends are in disagreement about what should be done about l'Affair Rolling Stan. In some ways, the argument about whether or not you dismiss Gen. McChrystal for comments made by the commander and his staff in this Rolling Stone article breaks down into unhappily familiar lines. Critics of the current strategy in Afghanistan unsurprisingly think McChrystal should be fired. Supporters of the strategy think that while the comments made to Rolling Stone were out of line, McChrystal should be retained in the greater interest of the war effort. Neither side, that I have yet seen, has acknowledged that either course of action would carry risk. The purpose of this post is to outline the risks of dismissing Gen. McChrystal as the commander of ISAF in response to the affair. This is an uncomfortable post to write. I very much admire Stan McChrystal and have looked up to him since my time in the Rangers when I fought in Afghanistan under his command. I know the man personally and worked with him last summer in an effort to analyze the war in Afghanistan and NATO/ISAF operations there. And so there may be a limit to how objective I can really be, but I'm a defense policy analyst, so I'm going to try and soberly analyze these risks without letting my admiration for McChrystal get in the way. I'll let you be the judge as to how well I succeed here.

Dismissing Gen. McChrystal

1. If you think the current strategy in Afghanistan is the right one -- and that is a big if -- this is not the ideal time to change commanders. (By contrast, if you feel the strategy in Afghanistan needs a radical change, this would be the ideal time to change commanders.) Shaking up the command in Kabul for the third consecutive summer would throw operations into temporary disarray. A new commander -- Jim Mattis, anyone? -- might not feel comfortable with all of his subordinates or staff and seek to change them, which would be his right as the commander but not so great in terms of continuity. Most crucially, the relationship between the president of Afghanistan and the new commander would have to be re-built. If you think the strategy in Afghanistan is the correct one, then, you are risking mission failure by replacing the commander and his staff at this stage in the conflict. You are in effect arguing that healthy civilian-military relations are more important than winning in Afghanistan.

2. In dismissing Gen. McChrystal, you may be dismissing the wrong American. The person who emailed Noah emailed me as well:

“It would be a travesty if we fired McChrystal and kept Eikenberry.” Not only is McChrystal the “only one with any sort of relationship with [Afghan president Hamid] Karzai,” says this civilian NATO advisor. But Eikenberry “has no plan, didn’t get COIN [counterinsurgency] when he was the commander and still doesn’t.” Plus, the advisor adds: “The Embassy hates Eik. That’s not necessarily an indictment (I’m no fan of the Embassy). But it contributes to the dysfunction and it means that half the Embassy is focused on keeping Eik in line.”

I would further add that Amb. Eikenberry has been, in my opinion, as intemperate in his comments and actions as Gen. McChrystal. Ahem.

Retaining Gen. McChrystal

1. Here is Article 88 of the UCMJ:

Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.

If you do not dismiss Gen. McChrystal, what message does that send to junior officers? The president aside, both Gen. Petraeus and Adm. Mullen have an obligation to hold their four-star field commanders up to the same standard to which they hold lieutenants. Failure to enforce the standard establishes a new standard. And no officer is irreplacable.

2. But the same person who made the point about McChrystal and Eikenberry also noted that in every single review of best practices in counterinsurgency, unity of effort is at the top of the list. "Every. Single. Review." It's obvious we are not singing from the same hymnal in Afghanistan. Can we ever as long as McChrystal and Eikenberry serve alongside one another? I am not sure, which is why I suspected that Eikenberry would leave his post. But in the end, Eikenberry might be the one who stays, and McChrystal might be the one who leaves. I still think it would be best for one of them to go.

In conclusion, I believe there are grounds for dismissal or other discipline under Article 88 of the UCMJ. But I also believe the president has every right to say that while Gen. McChrystal's statements to Rolling Stone were shockingly inapparopriate, there is a greater good here, and that greater good is stablizing Afghanistan. In the end, your opinion on whether or not Gen. McChrystal should be dismissed might come down to whether or not you think the current strategy is the correct one for the war in Afghanistan. My own prediction is that Gen. McChrystal will be retained. As much as critics of counterinsurgency like to blame Gen. McChrystal (and nefarious think-tankers, of course) for the current strategy, the reality is that the civilian decision-makers in the Obama Administration conducted two high-level reviews in 2009 and twice arrived at a national strategy focused on conducting counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. I suspect the president will not replace the man he has put in charge of executing that strategy with just 12 months to go before we begin a withdrawal. On the other hand, there are those who will argue that the principle of civilian control over the military is more important than whatever national interests we have in Afghanistan. And that is a legitimate argument to make. We just need to be honest about the risks both courses of action carry with them.