23 June 2010

McChrystal and Rolling Stone: Why Obama is losing the Battle of Kabul

General Stanley McChrystal, by opting to be the subject of a profile in Rolling Stone Magazine, to be published in issue 1108/1109 of that publication, touched off a firestorm with the biting criticisms attributed to him and his staff of several members of the Obama Administration, including Barack Obama himself.  The profile piece may very well cost him his career, and could send US military efforts in Afghanistan spiraling into chaos.

There can be no doubt that McChrystal erred by speaking as he did, and by allowing his subordinates to speak as they did, to reporter Michael Hastings.  Not only does Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution explicitly make the President the Commander In Chief of the Armed Forces and therefore McChrystal's superior in the chain of command, but Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice makes insults and criticisms by military officers of the civilians placed over the military an offense punishable at court martial:
Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.
Yet what many have overlooked is that the Rolling Stone article portrays McChrystal's deepest conflict as being with US Ambassador to Afghanistan former Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry:
By far the most crucial – and strained – relationship is between McChrystal and Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador. According to those close to the two men, Eikenberry – a retired three-star general who served in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2005 – can't stand that his former subordinate is now calling the shots. He's also furious that McChrystal, backed by NATO's allies, refused to put Eikenberry in the pivotal role of viceroy in Afghanistan, which would have made him the diplomatic equivalent of the general. The job instead went to British Ambassador Mark Sedwill – a move that effectively increased McChrystal's influence over diplomacy by shutting out a powerful rival. "In reality, that position needs to be filled by an American for it to have weight," says a U.S. official familiar with the negotiations.

The relationship was further strained in January, when a classified cable that Eikenberry wrote was leaked to The New York Times. The cable was as scathing as it was prescient. The ambassador offered a brutal critique of McChrystal's strategy, dismissed President Hamid Karzai as "not an adequate strategic partner," and cast doubt on whether the counterinsurgency plan would be "sufficient" to deal with Al Qaeda. "We will become more deeply engaged here with no way to extricate ourselves," Eikenberry warned, "short of allowing the country to descend again into lawlessness and chaos."

McChrystal and his team were blindsided by the cable. "I like Karl, I've known him for years, but they'd never said anything like that to us before," says McChrystal, who adds that he felt "betrayed" by the leak. "Here's one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, 'I told you so."
While the comments attributed to McChrystal in the Rolling Stone profile do indeed make him and his staff appear, in the words of John Dickerson of Slate magazine, "petty, frustrated, and reckless," Eikenberry's cable last fall--and its subsequent leaking to the New York Times shows him to be equally so (it was Eikenberry, not McChrystal, who alienated Afghan President Hamid Karzai by attending news conferences called by Karzai's opponents in last year's elections).  That incident also showed the intense competition between Eikenberry and McChrystal for resources and support from Washington:
General Eikenberry has been an energetic envoy, traveling widely around Afghanistan to meet with tribal leaders and to inspect American development projects.
He has been pushing the State Department for additional civilian personnel in the country, including in areas like agriculture, where the United States wants to help wean farmers off cultivating poppies. The State Department has tried to accommodate his requests, according to a senior official, but has turned down some because of budget constraints and its desire to cap the overall number of civilians in Afghanistan at roughly 1,000.
He played a significant role, along with Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, in persuading Mr. Karzai last month to accept the results of an election commission, which called for a runoff presidential ballot.
That Michael Hastings was granted nearly two months of access to the inner workings of McChrystal's staff shortly after the New York Times piece where Eikenberry undermined McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy leaves one wondering if this was not the latest in a tit-for-tat media conflict between McChrystal and Eikenberry.  Even if it is not, there is no denying that Obama's top diplomat in Kabul and Obama's top general in Kabul do not like each other and are taking steps to undermine each other. There is also no denying that Obama appointed them both to serve at his pleasure; it is difficult to envision Obama being pleased with either man at this juncture.

What Michael Hastings has revealed to the world is that the real battle for Kabul is in fact a clash of egos between the leaders of Obama's military and civilian strategies in Afghanistan--strategies which require each other if Obama's chosen task of building the Afghan nation is to succeed.  McChrystal and Eikenberry appear to view each other as more of an enemy than the Taliban or al Qaeda.

While Eikenberry is poised to win that battle (by default, as McChrystal is likely to be forced to resign), there is little likelihood of the clash of egos ending.  McChrystal's staff and deputy commanders are quite loyal to him personally, and any McChrystal replacement needs to come from those ranks if Obama is to avoid any major disruptions in the execution of the counterinsurgency strategy Obama chose in his speech at West Point last December.  The profile piece showed that McChrystal's staff and deputy commanders share his criticisms of the civilians involved in Afghanistan.

What is most disturbing about this ego clash is that it has been going on even as the military and diplomatic situation in Kabul deteriorates, and that it has been going on under Obama's ultimate leadership; nor is there indication of any effort by the Obama Administration to bring McChrystal and Eikenberry to some form of modus vivendi.  The Obama strategy for Afghanistan is a two-pronged strategy that involves defeating the Taliban militarily while building up the Karzai government diplomatically to withstand other insurgencies in the future.  That strategy demands cooperation and coordination between the military and diplomatic personnel in Afghanistan--between McChrystal and Eikenberry.  Not only has Obama not been getting that cooperation, he seemingly has not been demanding such cooperation.

Whether or not McChrystal loses his job over this is problematic, but regardless of that, unless Obama can get the civilian and military personnel in Afghanistan to play nice with each other, he faces a very serious risk of losing Afghanistan.  As the battle for Afghan hearts and minds has played out thus far, the clear loser at this juncture is Barack Obama. 

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