A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

McChrystal on the Carpet

What to say about General Stanley McChrystal's encounter with Rolling Stone? The article is here. Assuming the article quotes McChrystal accurately and no ground rules were violated, it's hard to understand what led McChrystal and his handlers to agree to such a wide-ranging interview with a reporter who opposes counter-insurgency doctrine. Abu Muqawama, an admirer of McChrystal's, looks at the pros and cons of firing him.

For my singularly non-expert take on this matter, it would go something like this I think: given the recent wave of expressions of concern about the direction of US policy in Afghanistan, a debate is in order and quite appropriate. That includes the suitability of debating counter-insurgency doctrine and its appropriateness as a response in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, McChrystal is so identified personally with COIN doctrine that the doctrine itself is likely to be confused with his individual personality, and this sort of story has personalized the matter. It's no longer a question of how to approach Afghanistan, but an issue over the personal liks among McChrystal, Ambassador Eikenberry, Richard Holbrooke, etc. McChrystal clearly ovrstepped proper bounds in this article, but if he's relieved, does that also doom COIN in Afghanistan? And if so, is that a good thing, or sacrificing a key US interest over a personality conflict?

This doesn't look like the classic military/civilian conflicts in US history — Lincoln/McClellan, Truman/MacArthur — but more like a case of really bad media judgment at a delicate time. Did the reporter, Michael Hastings, set up McChrystal? I don't know, but a skilled combat general ought to have been watching his flank more carefully. Is the aim of the article to bring down COIN, and not merely its prophet?

McChrystal has rubbed Washington the wrong way before — here are my comments on his IISS speech last fall, which raised hackles though he was really restating his previously released Strategic Assesment — and it's clear that there are still some rough spots. Now the Rolling Stone article raises all sorts of questions. If McChrystal was trying to send a signal, he chose an odd medium, and a reporter who questions his on counterinsurgency beliefs. Maybe this whole thing will become clearer soon; in the meantime, let's at least hope that long-term decisions about Afghanistan, which need to be made with due deliberation, not be confused with the controversies of the moment.

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