This Week at War, No. 16

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

May 15, 2009

May 15, 2009

Why McChrystal?

On May 11, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates stunned Pentagon-watchers by announcing the dismissal of General David McKiernan as the top allied commander in Afghanistan. Gates nominated Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal to replace McKiernan. Gates will also send his senior military aide, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, to be McChrystal’s deputy in Afghanistan. With Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen revealing almost nothing at their press conference about why they made this change, we are forced to accept Gates’s explanation at face value. Gates admitted nothing went wrong, during McKiernan’s eleven-month tenure in Afghanistan but that he wanted a fresh approach, a fresh look.

It seems very likely that McKiernan was the victim, and McChrystal and Rodriguez the beneficiaries, of home-office syndrome. For the past year, McChrystal and Rodriguez have worked at the Pentagon, very close to Gates and Mullen. During this time, Gates has seen Rodriguez, his senior military assistant, several times a day, and McChrystal, director of the Joint Staff, at least several times each week.

McKiernan, by contrast, although chosen by Gates and Mullen, is a relative stranger and known to them only through brief and infrequent meetings. Gates, knowing his remaining time at the Pentagon is likely to be brief and having just one last chance to get things right, opted officers he knows from daily contact and likely trusts.

In making this switch, what is Gates getting and what is he giving up? By removing McKiernan, Gates is losing an officer with long experience in military diplomacy. McKiernan commanded all coalition ground forces in the initial invasion of Iraq and commanded U.S. Army forces in Europe under NATO before his final post as commander of the NATO-sourced International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. McChrystal may perform the diplomacy role as well as McKiernan would have. But there’s nothing in McChrystal’s resume on which to base this assumption.

So what is Gates getting in McChrystal? McChrystal’s central experience this decade has been man-hunting. Within the narrow niche of direct action raiding, McChrystal earned credits for vastly improving interagency cooperation and for achieving excellent man-hunting results in Iraq in 2006-2008.

Does McChrystal have the diplomatic, organizational, and theoretical skills to lead a large multinational whole-of-government campaign in Afghanistan? Having little such experience in his record, we are relying on Gates’s and Mullen’s judgment.

Alternatively, Gates and Mullen may have picked McChrystal because man-hunting is exactly what they want. Perhaps success will soon be defined not by vague notions of nation-building but by the acquisition of a few high value scalps. With McChrystal in charge, this definition of victory may be easier to achieve.

Can an antiwar movement stop the Long War?

On May 12, General James Mattis of the U.S. Marine Corps, commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command, gave the key note address at a Joint Forces Command conference. Mattis gave the audience his vision of warfare in the future:

In the coming years, we will not face wars that have clearly defined beginnings and clearly defined ends. Rather we are going to be in an era of persistent conflict… and this brings with it the greatest rethinking of our military mission in a century.

Mattis is not the only Defense Department official attempting to prepare for a complex and murky future. Michle Flournoy, undersecretary of Defense for policy, who spoke recently at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, foresees a very long list of things for her and her colleagues in the Pentagon to worry about:

There are many new, emerging security challenges that we need to pay attention to: the rise of violent extremist movements more broadly, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, rising powers and the shifting balances of power, failed and failing states, increasing tensions in the global commons.

Many of these challenges are fueled and complicated by a number of powerful trends that are fundamentally reshaping the international landscape, and these trends include obviously the global economic downturn, prospects of climate change, cultural and demographic shifts, growing resource scarcity, and the spread of potentially destabilizing technologies.

From these five challenges and five trends, Flournoy foresees new forms of warfare instigated by both state and non-state actors and using tools ranging from rifles and roadside bombs to cyber attacks, attacks on satellites, and weapons of mass destruction. Flournoy’s lists of horrors imply, as Mattis described, an era of persistent conflict with U.S. military power permanently engaged in a wide variety of actions across the world.

Tom Hayden, a former leader of the 1960s antiwar movement, yells Stop! Writing in The Nation, Hayden delivers his review of this decade’s wars, summing up:

So what has counterinsurgency achieved thus far? At most, a stalemate of sorts in Iraq after six years of combat on top of a brutal decade of sanctions. Nothing much in Afghanistan, where conventional warfare pushed Al Qaeda over the border into Pakistan. Nothing much in Pakistan, where the Pakistan army is resistant to shift its primary focus away from India … The Long War now has a momentum of its own. The impact of the Long War on other American priorities, like healthcare and civil liberties, is likely to be devastating. Since most Americans, especially those supportive of peace and justice campaigns, are well aware of domestic issues and general issues of war and peace, it is important to begin concentrating on the great deficit in popular understanding.

Will Hayden be as successful mobilizing mass resistance to the Long War as he and his colleagues in the antiwar movement were during the Vietnam War? Several factors weigh against him. First, there is no conscription as there was during the Vietnam era. Second, the active duty headcount today is much smaller than it was during the Vietnam era and even smaller as a percent of the U.S. population; the vast majority of Americans today don’t have any contact with the military, in contrast to the Vietnam era. Finally, the weekly death rate during the Vietnam War was ghastly compared to today’s toll.

With conscription, a large army, and a high casualty rate, the Vietnam War was a very personal matter to America’s youth. Those circumstances don’t exist today. So Hayden may find it difficult to fill in the great deficit in popular understanding.

But watch this space. On April 24, I took note of criticism of President Obama’s policy for Afghanistan and wondered whether in time the Afghan war might no longer be the good war. The antiwar movement seems trivial today. But it also appeared that way to many in May 1965.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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