General McChrystal says we shouldn’t believe him

If today’s New York Times was reporting accurately, you should be very skeptical of anything that Afghan commander General Stanley McChrystal says. Not because he’s inherently dishonest, mind you, but because misleading everyone about the situation in Afghanistan may be part of his strategy for victory. To be specific, today’s Times also contains an article ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

If today's New York Times was reporting accurately, you should be very skeptical of anything that Afghan commander General Stanley McChrystal says. Not because he's inherently dishonest, mind you, but because misleading everyone about the situation in Afghanistan may be part of his strategy for victory.

To be specific, today's Times also contains an article with the headline "Top U.S. Commander Sees Progress in Afghanistan." It quotes McChrystal as follows: "I am not prepared to say that we have turned the corner. So I'm saying the situation is serious, but I think we have made significant progress in setting the conditions in 2009, and beginning some progress, and that we'll make real progress in 2010."

This is nicely hedged, but McChrystal went to describe the war in a way that leads me to question virtually anything he might have to say now or in the future. According to the Times, the general also said that "The biggest thing is in convincing the Afghan people ... This is all a war of perceptions. This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants" (my emphasis).

If today’s New York Times was reporting accurately, you should be very skeptical of anything that Afghan commander General Stanley McChrystal says. Not because he’s inherently dishonest, mind you, but because misleading everyone about the situation in Afghanistan may be part of his strategy for victory.

To be specific, today’s Times also contains an article with the headline "Top U.S. Commander Sees Progress in Afghanistan." It quotes McChrystal as follows: "I am not prepared to say that we have turned the corner. So I’m saying the situation is serious, but I think we have made significant progress in setting the conditions in 2009, and beginning some progress, and that we’ll make real progress in 2010."

This is nicely hedged, but McChrystal went to describe the war in a way that leads me to question virtually anything he might have to say now or in the future. According to the Times, the general also said that "The biggest thing is in convincing the Afghan people … This is all a war of perceptions. This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants" (my emphasis).

On the one hand this statement is something of a truism, in the sense that resolve, morale, and expectations about the future can be critical factors (though what is actually happening on the battlefield is hardly irrelevant). But McChrystal’s statement invites us to doubt anything he might choose to tell us about the progress of the war either now or in the months to come.  Why? Because if he believes it is "all a war of perceptions," then spinning the war in the most favorable possible light has to be part of his strategy, in order to try to persuade both Afghans and Americans that we are winning. And that means we can’t accept anything he says at face value, because we can’t know if he’s giving us an honest appraisal or just deploying a lot of blue smoke and mirrors in order to influence perceptions (which he thinks are key).

It is worth noting, by the way, that the Times published two articles that suggested that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan was not going particularly well. The first, by Ron Nordland, described the obstacles to our effort to train adequate Afghan police forces, and offered a gloomy assessment of progress-to-date. The second, which appeared in today’s paper (along with McChrystal’s somewhat upbeat account), described how the Afghan-Pakistan border remains incredibly porous, despite widespread awareness that this is a serious issue. I don’t know who is right here, but by his own account General McChrystal has somewhat greater incentive to play fast and loose with the facts. 

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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