The Afghan quagmire

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Rolling Stone magazine published this week a controversial article entitled “The Runaway General,” that has created quite the buzz over the past 24 hours. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan, was profiled in the piece and, to his detriment, made several mistakes. Now, he is being called to the White House to explain the circumstances surrounding the article. In a critical juncture in the war, the president called his most senior commander overseeing 94,000 American troops to most likely reprimand him or ask for his resignation.

Now, Gen. McChrystal has been in hot water before. He was the Pentagon’s top spokesperson during the invasion into Iraq in 2003 and head of the military’s most elite Special Forces unit that captured Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, head of al-Qaida in Iraq. In both instances, he took criticisms for misstatements or actions seemingly overstepping his boundaries.

From my experience in Afghanistan, he is a seasoned combat veteran and intelligent leader who always asked poignant questions in briefings. Several times in briefings I would sense the junior officer or staffer giving the discussion was so nervous they misstated a fact. McChrystal never got angry or frustrated, but seemed to prod the briefer into correcting themselves. Moreover, he has successfully navigated the political circus of overseeing the international forces from over 40 countries and Afghan officials he must rein in from time to time.

The first mistake Gen. McChrystal made surrounding the Rolling Stone article is naively forgetting that a reporter is trailing him capturing all the anecdotes of he and his staff. The article references “Team America,” who his advisers like to call themselves. Having spent 9 months on the ground in Afghanistan and serving with some of these folks, I laughed when I read the comments attributed by his advisers. I am under the impression his staff likened themselves to a fraternity and believe they are running the war from their desks. Unlike most Generals, McChrystal doesn’t have a team of aides who carry his laundry, but a circle of trusted colleagues who provide strategic counsel. Unfortunately, seems like they forgot their surroundings and that their brazen comments would be circulated in a major publication.

As one reads the article, however, most of the negative comments related to the Obama Administration are attributed to the Team America aides. They relay how McChrystal’s initial meeting with President Obama did not go well. The aide goes on to say how the president seemed uncomfortable by the military brass in the room. However, Gen. McChrystal does openly mock Vice President Biden and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry in the piece. Of Eikenberry, he says that he felt betrayed when the top secret State Department cables were leaked by diplomatic staff to the press. Unfortunately for the Ambassasdor, his private notes were dismissed and McChrystal given the additional troops he requested.

Much of the disappointment McChrystal expresses about Ambassador Eikenberry were feelings many felt at ISAF. The tension between the two senior officials was openly felt during some briefings where the two were seated. McChrystal, by all accounts, is doing a better job than Eikenberry than when he was in charge of forces on the ground in Afghanistan. Eikenberry’s cables were purposely leaked to undermine Gen. McChrystal. It would make sense that McChrystal’s staff, who are incredibly loyal to him, would have feelings of disdain for the former 4-star General.

From a political prism, it is very interesting that the president urgently called his most senior combat commander to the White House Situation Room not for a botched military operation, but for a news story that puts the White House in a bad light. Obviously, McChrystal should have known better than to mock the civilian leadership who make the calls in Washington, DC. He should have known better to allow his aides that much access to a reporter.

If Gen. McChrystal is to resign or be dismissed, the difficulty will be finding a senior leader within the military who understands counter insurgency and can actually implement it better than him. My frustrations in Afghanistan often came from senior military leaders once step below McChrystal who often disregarded counter insurgency doctrine. Many of the colonel level officer corps in the Army fighting today were brought up in a cold war mentality and haven not adapted to an irregular warfare model being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

McChrystal has admitted to a strategic mistake by making many of the misstatements quoted in the article. The president has every right to fire him for mocking the vice president and allowing his subordinates to openly mock other senior government officials. However, he could be making an even bigger mistake by letting the one person who is making a positive difference in Afghanistan.

Sergio Rodriguera Jr. is Senior Vice President at Sphere Consulting and a former Policy Advisor at the Department of Treasury. Recently, he was Deputy Officer in Charge of the Afghanistan Threat Finance Cell in Kabul, Afghanistan from July 2009 to April 2010 and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.