A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, September 21, 2009

How to Read McChrystal's Strategic Assessment

The big news of the day, of course, is the leak by The Washington Post of General McChrystal's Strategic Assessment. Most of the gist of the report had already leaked over the past couple of weeks, but the publication of it in detail is news. [I call it a leak because the Post was prepared to published a leaked, classified version, but instead agreed to publish a redacted version the Pentagon cleared last night for the purpose.]

I'm hardly the first to comment. Of the Middle East bloggers, Lynch and Cole already have their early takes up, while Exum actually worked on the report itself. Virtually all the policy bloggers outside the area studies realm have also been commenting, and since I took a sick day today working at home, I was also able to watch the various shouting heads on the news channels. So I'm hardly eager to just rehash what everybody else is saying.

Instead, it seems to me, it might be useful to make a few points as to how to read and think about this report. It has already become a political football, inevitably, but some of the simplistic narratives that are emerging are not, I think, what's important about the assessment itself. So my first strong suggestion on how to read and think about the report is pretty basic:
  • Read the report, not the headlines on a newspaper story or a website. Although the two main stories in today's Washington Post, one by Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung and the other by Bob Woodward, are a good place to start, they are no substitute for reading the whole nuanced report (minus a few redactions). It's an unusually candid report, sort of a think tank report channelled through General McChrystal's prism. It is not just a call for more troops, as some headlines would seem to imply, nor is it a Vietnam-style "just some more troops and the light at the end of the tunnel will be reachable" either. As the "Commander's Summary" puts it:
    Success is achievable, but it will not be attained simply by trying harder or "doubling down" on the previous strategy. Additional resources are required, but focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely. The key take away from this assessment is the urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way that we think and operate.
  • This is a nuanced report. It deserves a nuanced debate, though it probably won't get one. There's a danger here that the debate is becoming much more polarized than anything the authors of the report have said. It's not just a "more troops" versus "out now" choice. An attempt to win would require much more than more troops: it would require a new strategy (essentially a counterinsurgency one), and there are difficulties in achieving this. Again, the report itself is 66 pages with all the appendices, and doesn't lend itself to easy summary. I'm still reading the later parts, but it's clear there are no guarantees. For one thing, the nature of the Karzai regime and the quality of the Afghan forces are not necessarily well suited to classic counterinsurgency theory. This isn't going to be easy, and the report acknowledges that. This isn't your father's Vietnam: there are no rose colored glasses here, no gung-ho brass hats urging unlimited commitment. It's a brutally realistic assessment, along with conclusions of what is necessary if the political leadership decides it is worth the investment.
  • Try to avoid the "Obama versus the professional military" narrative. I think it's pretty clear what McChrystal is actually saying: the professional military has plenty of doubts about Afghanistan, too. But if our assignment is to assess what is needed to win it, this is our assessment. Whether that is a practical policy, whether the investments outweigh the potential risks, is a political decision; they've spelled out the military realities.
  • Don't trust the "failure is not an option" argument. No military man makes such arguments, at least not since the fall of Imperial Japanese militarism. Suicide in the name of a cause is not rational strategy. Some of the supporters of the war come close to that argument: we can't afford to lose. But if you also can't afford to win, you bleed unendingly, as we did in Vietnam and the Soviets did in Afghanistan. That's not what McChrystal is saying, and those who make such arguments are not supporting the careful analyses of the generals. They've watched the opening of Patton too many times. Patton really did give that speech, but he was being a cheerleader, not a strategist (and he was at least as good an actor as George C. Scott).
The report itself makes me think that the military is seriously analyzing the difficult questions posed by a war like Afghanistan. The initial responses, unfortunately, make me think that the public policy debate is nowhere near as sophisticated as McChrystal and his panel. Do read the report carefully before you join the debate. It's acronym-heavy, but worth it.


surrey said...

But main problem is That more troops or failure...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. Intelligent response to the swirling conversation about the document; well put.