The Runaway General??

Gen. McChrystal and his aides uttered remarks that were unbecoming of them. President Obama decided that removing Gen. McChrystal was needed for furthering the cause of national security. And so, there we have it. The person, who has been termed by some commentators as the chief architect of the US Afghan war strategy, has been fired.

Here we shall not pretend to go into the correctness, or fairness, or the lack thereof, of the decision, or into the logic of opening up to a journalist who, as has been demonstrated incontrovertibly, yields scarcely believable powers if granted such intimate access. Nor will we put up a show of covering in any degree the General’s perceived indiscretions in the past, or plausible mistakes committed by the civilian administration regarding the war, or the bickering and infighting among the various stakeholders in the Afghan war (McChrystal, Holbrooke, Eikenberry and Karzai among others), primarily owing to my lack of complete knowledge on these subjects. Indeed, it would have been enlightening to be aware of this background. Nevertheless, we will go ahead without the aid of such knowledge.

It is true that Gen. McChrystal’s remarks reflect unprofessionalism and a degree of contempt at his civilian masters. The General’s views and those of the ones close to him, admittedly, can not be openly professed, and probably to many, they seem to be in bad taste. However, the trash talk they indulged in is, in all fairness, not unlike the sort of talk that is heard within the privacy of a locker room. It is indeed highly plausible that the parties who have been the target of unsavory comments in this episode, may well be indulging in the same sort of conversation, albeit with the knowledge of being out of earshot of any journalist.

Having said all this, let us try to look into the factors that might been considered by President Obama in deciding about Gen. McChrystal’s future.

1. Was Gen. McChrystal correct in his “analysis” of Mr. Obama’s security administration?

The comments made by Gen. McChrystal and his aides might look crass on the face of it, but there would (hopefully) have been sound underlying reasoning as to why Gen. McChrystal differed in views with the said persons.

The comments certainly brought to the fore the differences of opinion among the various players involved in decision-making, that have been observed for some time. Hence, in a way the comments were welcome, because though they sound immature they do raise important issues if you look deeply into them.

President Obama addressed this issue well when he stated in his speech announcing the change of commanders that: “I welcome debate, but I won’t tolerate division.”

2. What in the world was Gen. McChrystal thinking giving this interview?

This is a million dollar question, and unfortunately not being mind-readers, many of us will not divine the answer to this. The comments were certainly sensational, and as one writer put it: “It seemed as if Gen. McChrystal wanted to get himself fired.”

A question before Mr. Obama would have been whether a commander who shoots off his mouth in such an unguarded manner is capable of leading a war effort on the ground.

Given Gen. McChrystal’s long history and reputation for being an exceptional and extremely intelligent soldier, this indiscretion would probably not outweigh his capacity to lead and take strategic decisions.

In terms of talent and ability, Gen. McChrystal would still have enjoyed the backing of the concerned authorities.

3. Given that the internal feuds are now very much public, can there be a united house if Gen. McChrystal is retained?

This probably might have been an important consideration for Mr. Obama. At this crucial stage in the war (Mr. Obama had publicly announced that the pulling out of American troops would begin in July 2011; commentators are also getting sceptical regarding the outcome of the war or benefits to be gained from it), the commander-in-chief would certainly like to have a united team that does not spend too much of its energy and focus in belittling each other. And, given the high stature of the personalities involved, it is certainly not unwise to bear in mind the (possibly) hurt egos of the various players.

As is often said, (and indeed was reiterated by Mr. Obama in his speech) that no individual is larger than the war effort (or any other such activity). This sentence was used by Mr. Obama to justify his dismissal of Gen. McChrystal. But, it could also have been easily applied to argue that, the individuals who were targets of the snide remarks, would do well to keep aside their bruised egos and rise to the challenge of directing the war efforts.

Admittedly, it might have been a big ask to have the team function with total cohesiveness given this incident. So, in that sense, Mr. Obama probably did the right thing by relieving Gen McChrystal of his duties.

4. Would Gen. McChrystal now command the same amount of respect that he used to command earlier?

This question has been raised by some commentators. If Mr. Obama were to retain Gen. McChrystal after having him come over to Washington DC, he would, in effect, have a man who has just been exposed to public ridicule, commanding an army of soldiers. Would the soldiers’ behaviour towards their commander change? Would he be viewed by them as a fallen hero? In my opinion, the attitude, towards him, of those under working under him would not change. But, can the same be said of other parties with whom Gen. McChrystal holds negotiations and discussions? Would Gen. Kayani or President Karzai view Gen. McChrystal in a different light, or try to accord less weightage to his views? I don’t know. But, Mr. Karzai did issue a statement that he would like to see Gen McChrystal retained.

5. How would Gen. McChrystal’s loss affect the war effort?

Some commentators have opined that the current Afghan war strategy was inspired largely by Gen. McChrystal. So, would removing him be akin to deplaning the pilot of a single-pilot aircraft? It seems that Defense Secretary, Robert Gates also had such doubts. He said that his fears were assuaged by the nomination of Gen. Petraeus for the job. It is said that Gen. Petraeus is widely respected across party lines within the US, and reports from the UK seemed to indicate that he enjoys a high degree of respect there. Reports also seemed to indicate that Gen. Petraeus was deeply involved in charting the current strategy for the Afghan war. In that sense, it seems that having Gen. Petraeus at the top might not lead to a loss in continuity.

Many analysts have pointed out that Gen. McChrystal was the only American official seen as having a somewhat close relationship with the erratic Mr. Karzai. (There have been many reports questioning Mr. Karzai’s actions and indeed his legitimacy and ability to rule Afghanistan; but that is not our concern here.) If Washington does regard Mr. Karzai as someone who is important to their future plans for Afghanistan, would retaining Gen. McChrystal have been a right thing to do?

Mr. Obama did not accede to Mr. Karzai’s wish to see Gen. McChrystal retained. Here, we can also point out that Mr. Karzai had, just a few days back, fired two top-ranking Afghan officials (the head of the intelligence agency, and the Interior Minister), who, according to commentators, were seen as the two Afghan officials closest to the West.

Another aspect to this discussion concerns Gen. Petraeus’s diplomatic skills. According to reports, he is an adept diplomat. That should prove useful in dealing with the Afghan and Pakistani officials.

6. How would a decision by Mr. Obama be viewed by the enemies?

This might have been an important consideration. One should, in general, not paint the picture of being a house in disarray, especially when the enemies are watching. (I don’t really know about this; may be, painting such a picture might lull the enemy into a false sense of security, which can then be exploited.)

Thus whoever was to go to Afghanistan as commander of the NATO forces should be seen to have the complete (and unqualified?) backing of Mr. Obama and the other important power brokers.

Having called Gen. McChrystal to Washington, would it have been possible for Mr. Obama to issue a statement that Gen. McChrystal’s behaviour was not upto the standards expected of him, but that he is to continue as commander in Afghanistan, and that he enjoys the total support of Mr. Obama, Mr. Biden, the National Security Advisor, James Jones and the others? I’m not sure.

This raises the issue that the person being appointed in Gen McChrystal’s place be of a stature equalling or exceeding that of his ousted predecessor. Gen. Petraeus, it is said, fits the bill.

7. Can this unexpected incident be indeed turned into a blessing in disguise, and used to revamp the entire war effort?

It is being said that the American public is growing increasingly disillusioned with the continuing war. People are questioning the benefits, if any, that are to be gained in continuing this war. People are said to be questioning whether this war can actually be won.

Against this background, it might probably have been a god-sent opportunity for Mr. Obama to take stock of what needs to be done to remedy the situation – both on the ground, and in terms of public opinion. Does the war strategy need immediate modification? Should there be a policy change? Would taking out the current set of players and replacing them with a new set provide a fresh impetus to the efforts without breaking continuity? Should Mr. Holbrooke and Mr. Eikenberry also be removed along with Gen. McChrystal?

Mr. Obama did say that the replacement of personnel does not mean that there is going to be a change in policy.

8. Do the infamous comments undermine civilian control of the military?

Publicly making such remarks is certainly wrong. A soldier is expected not to say such things. People have said that if Gen. McChrystal were to get away with this, there might be a sense of injustice felt by the junior soldiers in the army at special treatment being given to a powerful man.

Gen. McChrystal and his aides certainly did not help his case by commenting on virtually every prominent member in the civilian national security team.

9. Would Mr. Obama be seen as “weak” if he failed to punish Gen. McChrystal?

The President of the most powerful nation in the world and also the commander-in-chief of the most powerful army in the world, would probably not like to be viewed by friends and foes as weak. (There are some very interesting events going on that point to the power/strength of a civilian administration. President Obama has said and metaphorically has probably been keeping a foot on BP’s throat. In India, this has thoroughly exposed the weakness of the Congress-led government to do a fraction of what the US government has been able to do, as regards the Bhopal gas tragedy. As an aside, the fact that the company involved in the Bhopal incident is an American company makes the situation all the more interesting, and probably makes for an enlightening case study.)

There is another issue related to the publication of the Rolling Stone article that not many commentators have talked about. It does seem strange that a sane General and his sane aides would make such remarks “on record”. It is quite possible that they were under the impression that these were comments being made “off the record”. Did Michael Hastings violate any unwritten ethical laws of journalism? Do there exist any such laws at all? I did like this article by David Brooks in the New York Times on the Culture of Exposure in journalism.

Well, so what are the lessons learnt from this episode? Keep your mouth shut in front of anyone named Michael Hastings? Look before you speak (look before you leap?? ah, we want literal lessons)? All’s fair in love and war and journalism? When speech is rotten, silence is golden? (Speech is silver?? Try telling this to Gen. McChrystal.) A Rolling Stone brings down The Boss (again, “a rolling stone gathers no moss” needs a new avatar)? Laughter is *not* the best medicine? The enemy is closer than you think? Crouching tiger, hidden journalist?

Well, this is getting quite long. I guess I should stop. 🙂


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