Much has changed since I left the ISAF HQ for a conference in the Netherlands and some Rest and Recuperation or R&R leave (as the Army calls it) in early June. I returned to Kabul, Afghanistan from leave today and the staff is preparing to receive the newly nominated ISAF Commander, General David Petraeus. His Congressional confirmation is scheduled to be held this next week and we expect him to arrive in Afghanistan by the end of the week.
Without trying to second guess why President Obama accepted General McChrystal’s resignation – beyond that which was very succinctly stated by the President himself, I would like to share with you some of my views. . . About General McChrystal and the team of highly qualified professionals I have had the privilege to work with the last eight months in Afghanistan and about the article that sparked the controversy leading to this past week’s events.
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.
President Obama, 23 June 2010
While no one man alone can run a war, much of the positive change experienced this past year in Afghanistan can be directly attributed to General McChrystal. He took command at a pivotal time and was able to build upon the strong foundation General McKiernan started putting in place during his tenure in 2008 to 2009. General McChrystal’s drive and energy invigorated the command. He brought a new perspective and appreciation for the complexity of counterinsurgency to theater that concurrently drove and reinforced the notion that it was time for the US and the world to make Afghanistan a priority. In short order, the commander conducted his initial assessment, helped to revise the strategy and secure necessary resources, update the plan, and begin executing a more comprehensive population centric COIN campaign designed to ensure Al Qaeda’s defeat in the region and bolster the Afghan Government’s ability to deal with the Taliban insurgency and provide a stable and secure country. Although many resources and troop surge levels will continue to increase through the summer, we are starting to see indications that the strategy is working and the Afghans are starting to benefit. The progress may be slow in some areas (e.g. increased governance capacity and ability to deliver basic services), but there are other areas like security where we have arrested, and in some cases, reversed the trends. ISAF momentum is clearly starting to build.
Everyone should read the Rolling Stone article titled, “The Runaway General,” that led to General McChrystal’s resignation. Please read it and think about the strategic implications – that one reporter with a clear agenda is able to bring about such a dramatic change that will certainly have a short term impact on the mission in Afghanistan and perhaps even a long term impact on US national security. The Taliban will use this opportunity to claim they are closer to victory and pronounce that this civilian and military division shows that they are winning and this change of command is an indication that political support for the war in Afghanistan is unraveling. They will take advantage of the fact that most people will not necessarily read and see the article for what it is, but instead, will blindly take for fact what is inaccurately reported by other news media who too easily endorse what has been written and reported as fact. While every reporter is entitled to an opinion, the Rolling Stone reporter took it too far by spinning a tale rather than doing an honest personal profile (if that’s what he said to get access in the first place).
As indicated above, I believe the Rolling Stone reporter had a clear agenda. He wrote an edgy and by design, a shocking story to subvert our efforts in Afghanistan and assassinate the character of honorable military professionals who are doing their best to serve their country and the soldiers they lead. The article mischaracterizes what is taking place in Afghanistan and it misrepresents the character of the individuals it purports to provide insight about – starting with General McChrystal. None of this, however, should be surprising? Does anyone really think that such a reporter has the depth of knowledge and understanding – of the military and national security affairs, to make him a credible and authoritative source? Yet I was dismayed and utterly disappointed at the level of credibility most of the rest of the media ascribed to this self-proclaimed expert during the feeding frenzy that ensued after the story broke. It was sickening to watch. Very few had the courage to question the motivation or the credentials of the reporter. In my opinion, the story was fraught with inaccuracies and certainly void of proper context in a number of areas. It was also surprisingly void of statements directly attributable to General McChrystal.
I have worked very closely with General McChrystal and he is a consummate professional and a great commander. Frankly, he does not have time to disparage the administration – and he never has to my knowledge. And why would he? He fully supports the President’s strategy. Further, it is demonstrated through daily actions on the ground where both military and civilian professionals are working together to implement the strategy. Although I was not present in Paris during the Europe trip cited in the article, I have worked closely with the so-called “aids” who were reported to make disparaging comments. Again, the professionals I know are not like that and are entirely misrepresented. I would be surprised if such comments were really made and have no doubt that if true, were put into a false context that was cleverly contrived by a reporter with an agenda.
There is no question that it was a mistake to give the Rolling Stone reporter such unfettered access. This will become an important case study in all our professional institutions and it will undermine the progress and goodness that has resulted from embedded reporting. But it demonstrates that the military cannot let it’s guard down and must thoroughly examine such offers to help tell an important story.
Every military professional will tell you it is absolutely necessary and appropriate for the President and Commander-in-Chief and our civilian leaders to be confident that their senior military leaders will not publicly disparage their authority – either directly or indirectly. Only because of his deep understanding and commitment to that principle, and because he was in command, and therefore responsible for all actions, is no doubt why Gen McChrystal offered his resignation. He willingly accepted the responsibility for alleged poor judgment exercised by some of his subordinates. I don’t, however, agree with “experts commentators” who argued the President had no choice but to accept his resignation. I’m sure more details will follow but it is a sad day when we let a Rolling Stone article drive such major Presidential decisions. It is also tragic that it takes this type of incident and attention to reinvigorate the dialog about Afghanistan.
The ISAF Command and troops in Afghanistan are under extreme pressure to produce the impossible on a unrealistic timeline. Having said that, I believe we can win this if we can sustain the real progress we have started to achieve this year. Is progress slower than we would like? Of course it is; slow, hard and necessary. Think of the long term implications for the enduring safety and security of the US. Think of the frustration of many Afghans who are also impatient after the last nine years. This change in command is a set-back that I’m sure we can recover from. It will undoubtedly interrupt momentum that has started to build this year. Our current focus in the ISAF headquarters is to do everything we can to keep the momentum building and to set the conditions for a successful endstate – despite the self-inflicted hurdles and challenges we face.