Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I don't have much to add to this McChrystal thing

Surely you've heard the details by now: Rolling Stone publishes a profile of the "Runaway General," Washington justifiably freaks out, McChrystal apologizes, Secretary Gates admonishes him, and an Af-Pak meeting tomorrow at the White House will include at least one four-star participant who usually chimes in by VTC.

A lot of people are calling for GEN McChrystal to be fired. (I'm one of them.) Several others suggest that they don't know what all the fuss is about, or that firing the ISAF commander is too disruptive to consider.

Ex helpfully lays out the reasons why either COA is risky.

Read all that stuff if you want. Until tomorrow's meeting happens, there's not much to add.

The one thing I do want to note here is exactly why I think this is such a big deal, why the piece is so damning: it's not just a matter of what GEN McChrystal thinks or says or writes or feels about his superiors and civilian colleagues, but rather the command climate that he's fostered.

Leadership and command are not the same thing. Tactical leadership and strategic leadership are not the same thing. A platoon leader and the commander of an international coalition force have very, very different jobs.

All of this seems obvious, right? So why do I bother writing it? Because invariably someone's going to come along and tell me about how the only lieutenants who don't backtalk and stretch the truth with higher are the terrible ones. And fair enough. (Mike Few and Matt Gallagher have both made that point, and to the extent that I know anything at all about the subject, I'd agree with them.) But that's the difference between being a lieutenant and a four-star.

A theater-level command is not a football team. Us-against-them leadership, pitting your own staff and subordinates against the implacable bureaucratic/political enemy, is just not appropriate. It's been said a hundred times, but I'm going to say it again: unity of effort is absolutely essential to an operation like this one, both because of its scale (requiring coordination across dozens of coalition governments and militaries, as well as regional actors and most importantly, the Afghan government) and its nature (that is to say because a COIN effort requires even deeper multinational, interagency, and interservice coordination than a purely kinetic effort).

Whatever GEN McChrystal did or didn't say, it seems obvious from the overall tenor of the comments attributed to his staff and advisors that the general fostered an environment in which "our team" -- that is, the uniformed folks at ISAF -- faced opposition from all sides, from its political masters just as much as from the Taliban or the Karzai kleptocracy.

There's not an employed individual on this earth who feels completely unconstrained by higher, totally and absolutely permitted to do his job as he sees fit. Some people deal, and some don't. Some people just bitch a lot and get on with the job. It seems to me that GEN McChrystal probably falls into this latter category.

Unfortunately this attitude erodes that vital sense of unity of effort, and creates an atmosphere where the followers think they know better than the leaders. And if the COMISAF is so cynical about the administration's competence that his senior staff and closest aides feel comfortable mocking the civilian senior leadership of this country, then why should the American people, our coalition partners, or the Afghans themselves have any faith?

EDIT: I totally forgot the reason that I even thought to write this post. In running down the risks involved in replacing GEN McChrystal, Ex (and The Security Crank) notes that a third straight summer of churn at ISAF would almost certainly hamper the war effort. This is certainly true, and probably more true in this case than it would be normally: McChrystal has collected a sort of all-star team of hand-picked staff and advisors, and as one can easily see from the article, many of them are extremely loyal to the boss. Now don't get me wrong -- these guys are professionals, and it's their job to work for the new guy just the same as they worked for the old guy. But wouldn't the resentment about this particularly high-profile (theoretical) sacking be even more significant considering the circumstances? Wouldn't you be basically starting with a blank slate, seeing as ISAF HQ seems to basically be composed entirely of Papal True Believers?

19 comments:

  1. Gulliver: I don’t have much to add to what you had to add, but will add it nevertheless.

    First, thanks for posting. I was getting worried we would be the only blog out there not to post something on the "Runaway general" (an article which achieves the feat of having a self-fulfilling title).

    Unfortunately this attitude erodes that vital sense of unity of effort, and creates an atmosphere where the followers think they know better than the leaders. And if the COMISAF is so cynical about the administration's competence that his senior staff and closest aides feel comfortable mocking the civilian senior leadership of this country, then why should the American people, our coalition partners, or the Afghans themselves have any faith?

    I couldn’t agree more. A former French minister once said, "When you are a Minister, either you shut up or you quit" (“Quand on est ministre, on ferme sa gueule ou on démissionne”). This idea that one should either play with the team or leave the field is a common sense principle for civilian leaders--and a rather fundamental one for military commanders. Sir Sherard Coper-Cowls, UK's Special Envoy to Afghanistan, just quit his job because he disagreed with the policy that was being pursued. If General McChrystal felt he did not get the backing he needed from the administration, he could have done the same.

    I doubt, however, that he would have done so. After all, he got a lot of what he wanted in Afghanistan. Why would a man, who is certainly intelligent and in such a position of power, or his aides (to whom I give the benefit of the doubt and assume are pretty smart, too) babble like this in front of a journalist? The only answer I can come up with is arrogance—the deep belief, held by McChrystal, that he is so needed by the civilian power that he can have things his way—and in his style. This is someone who thought he deserved more than a “10-minute photo op” with President Obama, and who holds in contempt those who, like Vice-President Joe Biden, support other strategic options than his.

    McChrystal’s false (or true, to be seen at the next Af-Pak meeting) sense of security also comes from the fact that when he replaced McKiernan, he was widely seen as Obama’s “last card”—the last change of commander the President could make without making the whole Afghanistan war effort look unwinnable, and making himself look fickle and irresolute. In other words, keeping McChrystal or replacing him is a lose-lose game for the President. As it is for the whole war effort in Afghanistan.

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  2. I have to agree with Alma. Thanks for posting. I don't have anything to add and I agree we'll have to wait and see what happens tomorrow. The arrogance displayed in the piece is really bad.

    Londonstani has a nice post on Coper-Cowls' resignation over at AM and I read this from AFP: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5iGTp75IyvLaF5BN6lUThVhTMmRTQ (too out of it to make it a link). I wonder, will this resignation affect the President's decision or is not relevant?

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  3. To be fair, it's not clear that Coper-Cawls has left his job in protest over the war strategy. He's had conflicts with Sedwill, who has the support of the new administration back home. And his "extended leave" is likely the compromise made between his unwillingness to toe the line and the more-or-less affirmation of faith to NATO's efforts in Afghanistan Cameron made on his recent trip there. I don't think they're particularly comparable situations, though it's curious that they happened within days of one another.

    but rather the command climate that he's fostered

    I agree wholeheartedly with this, Gulliver. Even should the President choose to retain McChrystal--which I am increasing coming around to, as an idea--the fact that McC and his aides would speak so candidly and disparagingly of the civilian leadership to a member of the press does not speak highly of their commitment to the mission. Which in turn gives ground for allies to question them and by extension NATO/ISAF. It's a whole chain of effect in motion.

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  4. G. Spot on.

    Anyone who has run a unit that's categorically better than its peers has run into this dynamic.

    Your team gets hopped up on itself for kicking ass and spouts off about it.

    Generally, that doesn't happen with a 4 star and a bunch of BAMFs drinking with a journalist though.

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  5. Looks like the General may have resigned (CNN and others have it).

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  6. Actually, he reportedly offered to resign...

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  7. (I am going to repeat my comment from Schmedlap's because, well, I just can't be bothered to think up anything else. What a mess!):

    "I guess I picked the wrong day to avoid the internet. Or exactly the right day....

    Who decided it was a good idea to let a Rolling Stone reporter hang out with the General?
    The initial anecdote - in the French hotel - is not exactly decorous. I know, I know: a certain type of person and particular culture and all that, but at that level don't you need to behave a certain way in public? Like in front of reporters? Rolling Stone reporters? Because you are going to get a personality driven piece out of a publication like that, that's for sure.

    That said, Schmedlap's idea seems like a reasonable one. I'm more concerned about the civ-mil issues than you are, though. Or at least, a certain undisciplined leaky atmosphere that seems to predominate, but I am not knowledgeable enough to know what the atmosphere might be a function of, or who is responsible for it, or if it is a function of our media obsessed, hyperactive Twittering age. Or if my perceptions are completely off the mark, because as an everyday person I am so removed from it all."

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  8. To clarify: by "leaky atmosphere," I'm talking about the whole civ-mil show. Both sides. Again, just trying to say how it feels as an outsider watching this process sort its way through the media, new and old. It's confusing and doesn't inspire confidence. This is a terrible thing for me to say, because its not fair to blame the President for this, but why does everything this administration touch seem to be messed up? I know: not fair. Can't help thinking it, though.

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  9. Despite prior hagglings via twitter and my blog, I actually agree with almost all of this. Where I part ways is with the conclusion of sacking him. The options available are more complex than simply fire/don't fire or, as it now stands, accept/decline resignation.

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  10. What a week. Reporters conducting mock traffic control points, and generals tearing it up in Irish pubs. Wonder what we'll see next?

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  11. Wonder what we'll see next?

    BP torching sea animals.

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  12. Would it not be great to see the entire National Command Authority and members of Congress pull combat operations in the place of soldiers for a period of six months.

    AFG might then be a different place!

    And current vets might just get better attention when they return.

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  13. "third straight summer of churn at ISAF would almost certainly hamper the war effort."

    Maybe McChrystal's war effort is hampering the war effort. Nutty thought, that.

    The problem I'm having is that some seem to pragmatically decide that traditional Constitutional protections separating the generals from their civilian overseers are less important that kicking the can down the road in Afghanistan.

    They seem to have their priorities seriously out of order. No one takes an oath of commission or enlistment to defend against all critics, foreign or domestic, our ongoing operations in a far-off COIN conflict. But we did take an oath to preserve the Constitution.

    Priorities, people.

    SNLII

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  14. Well, all things aside, his attitude towards having dinner with frenchmen is just plain stupid. "Its gay"? Wtf? Is this the general staff of the major war effort of the worlds largest military power talking like a bunch of 16year old potheads?

    Oh, and congratz on advancement in the "fcking gay" sport of soccer btw.

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  15. SNLII,

    WTF is your jibber-jabber all about? Are you discussing the same topic?

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  16. Well, all things aside, his attitude towards having dinner with frenchmen is just plain stupid. "Its gay"? Wtf? Is this the general staff of the major war effort of the worlds largest military power talking like a bunch of 16year old potheads?

    I know English isn't your first language, fnord, but consider re-reading the article. McChrystal didn't say that.

    Oh, and congratz on advancement in the "fcking gay" sport of soccer btw.

    Congrats on qualification. Morten Gamst Pedersen can't save you this time!

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  17. Gulliver: Fair point, apologies, but it does seem to reflect the general attitude in his crew, no? Maybe its the journalist giving it bias, but it does seem like a internal culture very similar to jocks in highschool, no? Thats the whole issue of command-culture, building up internal communication, etc. I mean, getting drunk with journalists, and even worse, letting his subs get drunk w journalists? Building a entourage of yes-men around himself who call themselves Team America? I mean, it sounds like the Abu Muqawama blog, not like dedicated professionals.

    And hey, we got our old communist coach back again, we will surely qualify next time ;-)

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  18. Mr. Gulliver,

    Where is the comments section to your above - and most recent - post? Is anyone else having trouble seeing a comments section to the above?

    Also, quit Twittering and write more blog posts :)

    Just kidding!

    I finally looked at your Twitter site or whatever its called. You've mentioned it on the blog more than once and I usually ignore it (sorry).

    Good grief. I do not like that medium at all, with the exception of the arty people doing arty things. But for this stuff? Dear friends, this is where we must part ways - on small wars related Twitter commentary. You all have fun doing your own thing, while I'll stick to the microfiction.

    Have you seen Arjun Basu's Twitter site? He writes Twisters - 140 character stories. They are brilliant and he's got a TON of followers. It's the perfect little project for the cell phone age. His stories get translated into different languages, all sorts of people subscribe. I love when people get creative and it works.

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  19. You must be Rangers. You can talk yourselves into anything.

    Salad.Tossers.

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