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Winning hearts and minds: all of McChrystal’s advisors

Winning hearts and minds: all of McChrystal’s advisors

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the ascetic new commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has not gone soft during time spent in Washington.

The Special Forces commander, who reportedly ran a dozen miles to and from the Council on Foreign Relations’ New York offices when he was a fellow there and who limits himself to a single meal a day to keep his mind sharp, seems to have taken a page out of his friend Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus‘s playbook in more than one respect: He has moved to deftly enlist the Washington class of think tankers, armchair warriors, foreign-policy pundits and op-ed writers in the success of his mission — as well as grab up a few people who have made their mark in Afghanistan.

Among those who have recently appeared being described as “special advisors” to General McChrystal are Sarah Chayes, the NPR reporter turned Kandahar-based humanitarian. Chayes had been due to appear at a Center for American Progress event this week that was later cancelled.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Fred Kagan and his wife Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War, are also part of a team of influential (and notably bipartisan) think-tank hands serving as members of a “strategic assessment group” to McChrystal. Fred Kagan, a former military historian at West Point, is credited with helping formulate the “surge” strategy in Iraq that was led by General Petraeus and current Iraq commander Gen. Ray Odierno on the ground and chosen by then President George W. Bush.

This week, two other senior defense analysts and members of Gen. McChrystal’s “strategic assessment group” who recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, reported to foreign-policy audiences and journalists from their home institutions. While their respective messages were not optimistic, it’s conceivable they might be part of an effort that ultimately helps McChrystal make the case to a skeptical and quagmire-averse Washington of the need for providing more troops, civilian personnel and resources to Afghanistan.

Cordesman, who stressed in his typically blunt Wednesday briefing (pdf) that he was only speaking for himself and not for General McChrystal, said that Afghanistan was “a war shaped not by strategy but by years of neglect and systematic under-resourcing.”

“I am less optimistic than I was before the trip,” Biddle said on a Council on Foreign Relations press call Thursday. “And one thing that did change is, I’m less optimistic that the margin of the north and the west are perpetually stable, than I was before going there.”

Other members of the McChrystal assessment team, in addition to the two Kagans, Cordesman, and Biddle, include:

  • Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger, counterinsurgency expert, and blogger at the Center for a New American Security
  • Jeremy Shapiro, a civil-military relations analyst at the Brookings Institution
  • Terry Kelly, a senior researcher at the Rand Corporation
  • Catherine Dale of the Congressional Research Service
  • Etienne de Durand of the Institut Français des Relations Internationales in Paris
  • Luis Peral of the European Union’s Institute for Strategic Studies
  • Whitney Kassel of the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense
  • Lt. Col. Aaron Prupas, a U.S. Air Force officer at Centcom

The director/coordinator of the team was Col. Chris Kolenda. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has described Kolenda as “something of an amateur ethnologist” and a “key” Pentagon strategist for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ignatius says the young lieutenant colonel gave an “unforgettable briefing” on the local tribes in his corner of northeastern Afghanistan back in 2008. Kolenda was assisted by U.S. Army Col. Danial Pick.

In the aftermath of the controversial decision to “surge” troops to Iraq in late 2006, General Petraeus was both strategic and calculating in encouraging his top military advisors to make the case for the surge to the press, in setting up regular conference calls with Washington’s think tank class and op-ed writers, and inviting such influence makers on Pentagon-chaperoned (and sometimes Pentagon-funded) missions to study gains coalition forces were achieving in Iraq from the command’s perspective.

As Petraeus described his thinking at the time, his aim was to add time to the “Washington clock” and make his mission less vulnerable to political hand-wringing back home until the security situation was stabilized. Although the president who authorized Petraeus’ surge left office with the Iraq war his chief and still controversial legacy, Petraeus was able to smoothly transition to become one of the Obama administration’s chief national security figures.

It’s a lesson perhaps from the Petraeus team’s famous counterinsurgency doctrine: In the campaign to win hearts and minds, don’t forget the home front.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images