Wednesday, June 23, 2010


The extraordinary events of the last couple of days involving General Stan McChrystal have provided unusual insights into how the US government works and how random unpredictable happenings can change history.

The best story I've seen about what happened is here. It points out how the eruption of the Icelandic volcano (I'm not even going t0 try to cut-and-paste the name of the thing) gave Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings access to McChrystal's staff that he would not otherwise have had. The volcano erupted, grounding flights, and hosing up McChrystal and staff's travel plans. Subsequently the reporter got to spend a lot more informal time with the staff than he would have otherwise.

The staff sunk McChrystal. The general himself did not say anything incriminating to the reporter that I could tell from the article. There were some third-hand, un-attributed quotes along the lines of "McChrystal is believed to have thought" something incriminating. The most incriminating quotes were attributed, generically, to the staff. Most of the most incriminating statements - if they are true at all - apparently came from staff officers while they were drunk in Paris. The big impression I got from the article was that his staff was unbelievably arrogant to -allegedly- say the things they did to a reporter. I heard it said today, by a couple of guys who know most of that staff personally, that they are the best we have, the most combat-experienced, and the most sophisticated at fighting the war against al Qaeda. Some of those guys must be feeling pretty bad this week, both for their own careers and for their boss.

I had wondered how a guy who was apparently as smart as McChrystal could have made such an obviously stupid mistake. The story about the volcano really made sense. He had a plan to limit his risk associated with the Rolling Stone reporter, and his plan was derailed by fate. It's amazing how often random chance can divert the course of history.

The selection of Petreus to replace McChrystal is also interesting. In one sense it is probably obvious as the best thing the White House could do to get out of a bad situation. Petreus has a great reputation, is politically way more savvy than McChrystal, and in fact is considered an architect of the counterinsurgency doctrine that McChrystal advocated and implemented in Afghanistan. From one angle the response could be "thank goodness - he's the best guy available". On the other hand, milblogger Cdr Salamander has a salient perspective. Salamander points out this is a demotion for Petreus, who started the day as McChrystal's boss. Now who does the President nominate to take over CENTCOM? What does that guy think? I'm now, technically, superior to someone who was previously in my job? Who got demoted for doing his job too well?

This is not a huge deal - operational combat command is a more desirable job than COCOM Commander, which is a big diplomatic-staff-administrative-bureaucratic pain in the butt, so probably Petreus is not professionally too upset, although personally he was probably looking forward to a less painful PERSTEMPO than he's now going to get.

The other factor is that Afghanistan is a tough, intractable problem. I'm not sure there is a whole lot we can do that will solve the inherent problem that Afghanistan is not a real nation-state in any sense we understand, and no matter what we do it's going to be painful until the day we leave, then go downhill from there. If you were Petreus, wouldn't you rather end your career on a high note - as the victor of Iraq, followed by a successful COCOM Command, then move into some civilian leadership position, rather than risk being known as the unlucky guy who presided over final failure in Afghanistan?

Possibly Petreus will pull off a miracle and make lasting progress in Afghanistan, but I'm not sure who would bet on that. I don't know what to expect. Petreus is plainly brilliant, and brilliantly political. I had dinner with him last year and came away very impressed - but more so at his political acumen and leadership than warfighting sophistication. But I also know that a great deal of his success in Iraq came from his incredibly brilliant staff, most of whom are not available for Afghanistan. The one guy I'd watch for is H.R. McMaster, who seems to spend most of his time at think-tanks when he's not winning major battles.

Ironically, most observers agree that McChrystal had to go, even though they supported him and not the President, because he put the President in an untenable position. If the President didn't get rid of him it would significantly erode the integrity of the chain of command, which is ultimately a bigger deal even than the war.

I semi-sort-of-almost wonder if McChrystal in the back of his mind almost hoped to go out this way, and consequently didn't worry as much as he should have about allowing the Rolling Stone guy to get too close. He has reportedly always been kind of a wild-and-crazy guy, prone to do unpredictable things. Years as a senior combat leader may have given him a kind of fatalistic don't-give-a-shit attitude, which reportedly he may have already had a little bit. He might have seen the way things were going in Afghanistan and felt like it might be OK to go out with a big splash early than hang on and be associated with possible eventual failure. This attitude may have been exacerbated by truly understandable combat fatigue. The guy has been fighting hard without a break since 9/11 and had reportedly tried to retire before he got the job in Afghanistan.

He will now remembered as a courageous and tireless warrior who made legendary contributions to the war against terrorism and went out under wacky circumstances that probably ultimately weren't his fault, other than he was a blunt, plain-spoken soldier who didn't pay enough attention to public affairs and politics. It's interesting. I predict something more interesting will happen, related to Afghanistan, before we're done there.