The South Asia Channel

Ground truths

By Michael A. Innes At the end of a New York Times article on the apparent lack of direct face time between President Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the Brookings Institute’s Michael O’Hanlon is quoted as saying, “I don’t think I can defend him for being out of touch with his commander… He has other people who advise ...

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By Michael A. Innes

At the end of a New York Times article on the apparent lack of direct face time between President Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the Brookings Institute’s Michael O’Hanlon is quoted as saying, “I don’t think I can defend him for being out of touch with his commander… He has other people who advise him. But there’s no one else with the feel on the ground that McChrystal has.” 

Andrew Exum, of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) agrees, suggesting that the disconnect, if there is one, is “indefensible.” Noah Shachtman, editor of Wired’s uber-national security blog, Danger Room is sympathetic to the criticism. “Given how dire the situation is in Afghanistan,” he writes, “and given Obama’s willingness to dive head-first into relatively-trivial matters like the Olympics — I think I’d like to see that Commander-in-Chief more deeply involved.” Jason Sigger, a Washington defense policy analyst, and Bernard Finel, a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project, on the other hand, were both heavily critical of O’Hanlon’s comments.    

This stems from McChrystal’s response to questioning on 60 Minutes a few days ago that he’d only met with Obama once since taking command, via video teleconference (or “VTC”). Framed in that light, devoid of context — or common sense consideration of it — it seems mildly disturbing. But it shouldn’t be. The Danger Room piece, which turns to U.S. military historian Mark (“Blog Them Out Of the Stone Age“) Grimsley for some expert advice, lays bare the silliness, making the critical point that there are a number of people in important positions between Obama and McChrystal, and the flow of communications between Kabul and the White House has generally remained true to historical form.

After watching the 60 Minutes segment, though, I’m slightly surprised that out of all the points raised, it was McChrystal’s face time with Obama that’s got everyone in a tizzy. That one blurb occupied a few seconds near the end of a 13 minute interview. McChrystal was straightforward in his response, but he certainly didn’t come across as if he was trying to drive an agenda — at least, not with that particular point.  McChrystal has been lobbying publicly for increased troop commitments, essentially forcing the White House into a reactive position on the subject. One can only assume that one of the talking points on the agenda of today’s meeting between the two on Air Force One will include a reference to who sets policy and who follows orders.

For the most part, I didn’t have any serious objections, either to the questions that 60 Minutes’ David Martin put to McChrystal, or to the general’s answers to them. Breaking bad habits was a heavy theme, including the symbolic importance of not flying the NATO flags outside his headquarter building at half mast every time a soldier is killed. “We’ve gotten to the point where the flags were at half mast all the time,” he told Martin. “And I believe that a force that’s fighting a war can’t spend all it’s time looking back at what the costs have been, they’ve got to look ahead and they’ve got to have their confidence, and I thought it was important that the flags be up where they belong.”

That’s a fair point on such an emotive issue — but it also misses another symbol inherent in the lowered flags, and the point of the practice: that when a soldier from any one of the ISAF member states was killed, all the flags were lowered. That sort of blatant solidarity does not come easily within the Alliance. At one point, Martin asked McChyrstal what he thought of the Destille Garden outside his staff offices, where people can “sip cappuccino under the shade.” He wryly suggested he’d like to “turn it into a rifle range” — though he probably knows, despite all the guilty comforts that a staff headquarters represents to those out in the forward operating bases (FOBs) and combat outposts (or COPs), that with everyone in his staff headquarters working on marksmanship skills, he’d have no one left to draft the unending crush of briefings and memoranda and paperwork that make big field missions tick.

The one serious point I’d pick at is this: so what if “there’s no one else with the feel on the ground that McChrystal has”? McChrystal himself warned in the interview against ever believing that we really know the ground truth, basically because we’re (he was including himself) not the ones walking it. More than that, though — and taking O’Hanlon literally at his word — McChrystal’s not an intelligence or special forces operator out sniffing at the bushes and tracking boot prints in the dust. He’s the mission commander, which is not a leisurely paced job, and doesn’t — shouldn’t — leave all that much time for getting down into the weeds. Which suggests that neither should Obama.

The implied criticism over the last couple of days has been that senior leaders should be tightly wired into ground truths — into maintaining fine-grained situational awareness of conditions in Afghanistan. That’s ridiculous. Taking the time to go deep is for spooks and anthropologists; the time to network, gladhand, and swap stories over beers at the Sunday BBQ is for another life, and a luxury that neither Obama nor McChrystal has, at least when it comes to fighting this war. More importantly, questions about the relationship between Obama and his general in Afghanistan, fixated as they are on communication channels, occlude a lesson that’s now been conveniently forgotten about technologically-enabled micromanagement: just because Obama and McChrystal can communicate more frequently that they have been doesn’t mean that they need to.

Michael A. Innes is a Visiting Research Fellow in the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds. From 2003 to 2009 he was a civilian staff officer with NATO, and spent the months of April and May this year as a staff liaison to ISAF HQ in Kabul.

MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images and Gary Fabiano-Pool/Getty Images

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