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Posted on Jul 2, 2010 in War College

Independence Day, 2010

By Carlo D'Este

June 30, 2010. U.S. Soldiers assigned to the 401st Military Police Company, 720th MP Battalion, 89th MP Brigade patrol the village of Shaghasi Kala in Logar Province, Afghanistan. (Department of Defense)

July 4th is normally a time of celebration and renewal in America. But with the Gulf of Mexico awash in millions of gallons of oil, unemployment high, the economy still fragile, and the war in Afghanistan at a crossroads, there is not much to cheer about.

Among the latest depressing headline stories is one that should never have occurred. Off-color remarks, many of them made after consuming alcohol in a Paris bistro, are responsible for the unnecessary downfall of a warrior. “The Runaway General,” a recent article about Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Rolling Stone magazine has resulted in his relief from command of NATO forces in Afghanistan by Pres. Obama.

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Gen. Stanley McChrystal (Department of Defense)What may never be resolved is why McChrystal and his staff blundered as they did in front of a reporter who had one hand on his notebook and the other on his tape recorder. All of us who have served in the military know what we can publicly say and not say, and the perils of being misquoted by the press. The rules are clear: break them at your peril. McChrystal and his staff not only broke them but why they knowingly, even blatantly, did so in front of a reporter is incomprehensible.

Whatever the reasons, it was a stunning display of hubris that cost a good soldier his command and is now leading to his retirement from the army. What General Alphonse Juin, the French corps commander in Italy in 1944 has said of the fractious competition by various Allied commanders for credit for the capture of Rome, applies to McChrystal: “History will not fail to pass severe sentence.”

Time magazine’s Joe Klein has aptly dubbed it “idiocy above and beyond the call of duty.” (Time, July 5, 2010). As a result, the tough-as-nails architect of the counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan fell from grace in one of the most stunning displays of insubordination since the relief of Gen. Douglas MacArthur by Pres. Harry S. Truman in 1951.

However, unlike the stormy relief of MacArthur that ignited a firestorm and a lingering controversy, the removal of Gen. McChrystal has caused hardly a ripple. Few have come to McChrystal’s defense. Even the president’s Republican critics have barely been heard from.

Not since Genghis Khan stormed through Asia in the 13th century has a foreign power ever subjugated Afghanistan. It is no secret that the war there has been going badly of late. In fact, it has been going badly since the Bush administration removed most American forces in 2002 and early 2003 to participate in the invasion of Iraq.

As we have learned the hard way in Iraq and elsewhere, winning a war solely by military means has not worked since World War II. As a nation of doers, compromise and diplomacy are words we Americans have traditionally had a difficult time embracing but which we’ve also had to learn are essential in resolving conflicts.

It has taken some time to accept that there will be no military victory in Afghanistan: that other solutions, to include involving the Taliban, will eventually have to be part of the way out of Afghanistan. The manifest element of our present counterinsurgency strategy is that winning hearts and minds is the top priority and that we cannot “win” by simply killing more and more Taliban. That role has been assigned to the nineteen Special Forces units hunting the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

So far, COIN (the acronym for counterinsurgency) is not working in the way it was intended. COIN has severely limited the military options available to our troops on the ground who are in harm’s way. Air and artillery support is difficult (often impossible) to obtain, and there is a rising chorus of criticism over the present rules of engagement. One of the key points in the recent Rolling Stone article about Gen. McChrystal, and of potentially far greater importance than his relief from command, is how deeply COIN has affected our combat troops and how overwhelmingly they distrust both it and him. As reporter Michael Hastings has written: “however strategic they may be, McChrystal’s new marching orders have caused an intense backlash among his own troops. They loathe the rules of engagement imposed upon them that they feel is putting their lives in far greater danger. Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. ‘Bottom line?’ says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. ‘I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.’”

An example is the platoon leader who rarely bothers to ask for air support knowing that it is unlikely he will get it unless able to clearly identify an enemy combatant force. To obtain air support they engage the Taliban by having one or two soldiers stand in the open to draw fire but when finally getting it often find that the pilots are reluctant to drop their ordnance. It’s no wonder the level of frustration is so high.

The much-heralded operation to clear and hold Marja has, in McChrystal’s own words, become “a bleeding ulcer” that has not produced the results intended. Although the military side of the operation has worked, Harmid Karzai’s government has abjectly failed to cooperate and only a handful of Afghan officials are on site, and unable to carry out McChrystal’s promise to restore both security and basic civilian services in a Taliban dominated town.

A similar operation to clear Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, a much tougher nut to crack than Marja, has been postponed from this summer to autumn and is expected to be a far more low key operation of reduced expectations.

What is clear is that the counterinsurgency strategy, which was successful in an entirely different setting in Iraq, is not working in Afghanistan and will need revision by the new NATO commander, Gen. David Petraeus. What makes success even more problematical is that without better support from Karzai, which shows no sign of being forthcoming, the present counterinsurgency strategy will fail. Moreover, like his predecessor, Petraeus’s hands will remain tied by the failure of the Afghan government to provide what is palpably missing. Joe Klein is quite right when he notes that, “COIN depends on having a reliable local government running the security and social programs, which simply isn’t going to happen as long as Hamid Karzai is President.”

None of this bodes well for either success in Afghanistan or for a workable exit strategy, which must inevitably occur, if not in 2011, as outlined in Obama’s West Point speech last year, then at some later point.

As we learned from Vietnam, unpopular wars require regeneration of public support if they are to be maintained. Americans are weary of a war that will soon enter its tenth year, with no end in sight, a war without an exit strategy and without a clear mission statement of what we propose to accomplish.

We keep hearing the phrase “conditions on the ground” in July 2011 – which is another way of saying no one has a clue where we’ll be at: whether or not a drawdown will actually begin or if the generals will press for more troops, which will mean an escalation deeper into the quagmire that daily more and more resembles Vietnam, where we also supported a failed government.

What’s not in dispute is the great sacrifices made by the men and women of our armed forces who are bearing the brunt of the danger and of repeated tours of duty in either Iraq or Afghanistan (in many cases, both). Let us fervently hope and pray that July 4, 2011 will be a happier time. If there is a single bright note to all this, it is the debt of thanks and gratitude we owe those who are serving in our armed forces. Recently, my son, who lives in the Phoenix area, was at Sky Harbor International Airport when he spotted a soldier in uniform. He went over to the young man, shook his hand and thanked him for his service. On July 4th (or any other day) we might all emulate this example.

When we crank up the grill and watch fireworks on Independence Day, let us take a moment to count our blessings. Despite tough times the one thing we still have is our freedom, which is non-existent in so many other nations where free speech and human rights have no voice.

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