Monday, June 28, 2010

Change in Afghanistan War command

Stephen Walt in A 'do over' in Afghanistan? Foreign Policy 06/24/2010 links to the following analysis by Gareth Porter, Switch to Petraeus Betrays Afghan Policy Crisis Inter Press Service 06/23/2010.

Walt is reserved about the signs that Porter sees of high-level discontent with Obama's Afghansitan strategy. Both pieces are well worth reading. Here I want to call attention to this aspect of Porter's article:

Obama will certainly be put under pressure by the Republican Party, led by Sen. John McCain, to agree to eliminate the mid-2011 deadline for the beginning of a U.S. withdrawal and perhaps even for yet another troop surge in Afghanistan.

But accounts of Obama administration policymaking on the war last year make it clear that Obama caved into military pressure in 2009 for the troop surge of 2010 only as part of a compromise under which McChrystal and Petraeus agreed to a surge of 18 months duration. It was clearly understood by both civilian and military officials, moreover, that after the surge was completed, the administration would enter into negotiations on a settlement of the war.

Petraeus's political skills and ability to sell a strategy involving a negotiated settlement offers Obama more flexibility than he has had with McChrystal in command.

Contrary to the generally accepted view that Petraeus mounted a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, his main accomplishment was to make the first formal accommodation with Sunni insurgents. [my emphasis]
He also gives an account of McChrystal's management/leadership style that reinforces the disturbing, cowboyish picture conveyed by Michael Hastings' now-famous Rolling Stone article:

As commander in Iraq, Petraeus chose staff officers who were sceptics and realists rather than true believers, according to accounts from members of his staff in Iraq. When one aide proposed in a memorandum in the first weeks of his command coming to terms with the Shia insurgents led by Moqtada al Sadr, for example, Petraeus did not dismiss the idea.

That willingness to listen to viewpoints that may not support the existing strategy stands in sharp contrast to McChrystal's command style in Afghanistan. McChrystal has relied heavily on a small circle of friends, mainly from his years as Special Operations Forces (SOF) commander, who have been deeply suspicious of the views of anyone from outside that SOF circle, according to sources who are familiar with the way his inner circle has operated.

In an interview with IPS, one military source who knows McChrystal and his staff described a "very tight" inner circle of about eight people which "does everything together, including getting drunk".

"McChrystal surrounded himself with yes men," said another source who has interacted with some of those in the inner circle. "When people have challenged the conventional wisdom, he's had them booted out," the source said.

The McChrystal inner circle has been accustomed to the insularity that Special Operations Forces have traditionally had in carrying out their operations, the source added.
It's not against the regs for officers to drink alcohol. But is it really a good idea for the whole leadership team of a war commander to get blasted together at the same time?

Porter's analysis at least shows a way that Obama could use the Petraeus appointment as a way to unwind US commitment to this disaster of a war and nation-building effort in Afghanistan. As Walt puts it:

Contrary to what many (but not all) commentators seem to think, the firing of Stanley McChrystal and his replacement by General David Petraeus is not that significant. To be more precise, it will only be a significant event if Obama uses this shift as an opportunity to move towards withdrawal. Otherwise, we'll just rearrange some deck chairs and watch the war effort continue to founder.
And Obama's initial statement on the matter was:

I do not make this decision based on any difference in policy with General McChrystal, as we are in full agreement about our strategy. ...

We need to remember what this is all about. Our nation is at war. We face a very tough fight in Afghanistan. But Americans don’t flinch in the face of difficult truths or difficult tasks. We persist and we persevere. We will not tolerate a safe haven for terrorists who want to destroy Afghan security from within, and launch attacks against innocent men, women, and children in our country and around the world.

So make no mistake: We have a clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum. We are going to build Afghan capacity. We are going to relentlessly apply pressure on al Qaeda and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same.

That’s the strategy that we agreed to last fall; that is the policy that we are carrying out, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. ...

Let me say to the American people, this is a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy.
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