UPDATE: So President Obama has decided the only way to resolve the Rolling Stone fiasco — which is really a COIN fiasco — is to put Big Daddy COIN in command. Anyone else feel like we’re on Ozzy’s Crazy Train?
There were two major themes that I took away from the now infamous Rolling Stone piece on Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The first is obvious: Stan the Man is an arrogant man’s man who prefers Bud Lite Lime over chardonnay, and who has surrounded himself with a “handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs,” and they are super-cool too. They get sloshed at places called “Kitty O’Shea’s” and crack jokes about wimpy Washington fops like Dick Holbrooke and Joe Biden. They are running the war, reporter Michael Hastings points out. Their swagger comes from the chief maniac himself, Stan the Man, who enthralls Hastings with such witty repartee as this:
“I’d rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner,” McChrystal says.
He pauses a beat.
“Unfortunately,” he adds, “no one in this room could do it.”
With that, he’s out the door.
“Who’s he going to dinner with?” I ask one of his aides.
“Some French minister,” the aide tells me. “It’s fu**ing gay.”
Swell. But aside from getting himself in a pot of boiling water fired over these and other remarks he and his aides make about the President, Biden, Holbrooke, Eikenberry, et al, McChrystal comes off as a real American ideal — that is , if you are a red-blooded, right wing cowboy who holds the military in much higher esteem than the rest of America’s civil institutions. McChrystal should at least be happy that all of his cliched mannerisms and affectations were given the famous Rolling Stone treatment — like being described as a classic fighting general who goes on regular patrols with his soldiers and whose “slate-blue eyes have the unsettling ability to drill down when they lock on you. If you’ve fu***d up or disappointed him, they can destroy your soul without the need for him to raise his voice.” He’s so dedicated to the war effort and his men that he has seen his wife Annie less than 30 days a year since 2003. When he does see her on their 33rd wedding anniversary, he drags her out with his “inner circle” to dinner at “the least ‘Gucci’ place his staff could find.” Then there’s the cussing and kick-assing, his 100 demerits at West Point, the anti-Parisian-doesn’t-truck-with-no-fancy-schmantzy-bureaucrats ethos. He’s lean (that’s pointed out several times) and mean, and has the temerity to tell his aides that he’s underwhelmed and disappointed with the president when he meets for the first time. Now that’s the kind of guy today’s Republicans and tea partiers would line up behind in a heartbeat.
But aside from noting that Stan and his posse are pretty much “the most powerful force shaping U.S. policy in Afghanistan” — and don’t they know it — and more so, the unbelievable break Hastings got when McChrystal and his people said all of these crazy things about administration officials in front of him and on the record, there’s the real story.
Hastings points out what a godforesaken mess Afghanistan is, but he deftly underscores that COIN, and specifically the new rules of engagement handed down by McChrystal himself, are confusing and degrading the morale of the troops on the ground. This isn’t something that Barack Obama has done — Hastings notes early in the piece that McChrystal got nearly all the troops he needed for the 2010 surge — this is about the fundamentals of COIN, the very strategy that McChrystal and his patron Gen. David Petraeus, and friends like Gen. Raymond Odierno, own and have been pushing like a ramrod through Afghanistan since 2009.
We know Rolling Stone has a skeptical if not outright anti-war agenda. But Hastings lets the combat soldiers do the talking and I feel this is the most explosive part of the report:
One soldier shows me the list of new regulations the platoon was given. “Patrol only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourselves with lethal force,” the laminated card reads. For a soldier who has traveled halfway around the world to fight, that’s like telling a cop he should only patrol in areas where he knows he won’t have to make arrests. “Does that make any fu****g sense?” asks Pfc. Jared Pautsch. “We should just drop a fu****g bomb on this place. You sit and ask yourself: What are we doing here?”
The rules handed out here are not what McChrystal intended – they’ve been distorted as they passed through the chain of command – but knowing that does nothing to lessen the anger of troops on the ground. “Fu**, when I came over here and heard that McChrystal was in charge, I thought we would get our fu****g gun on,” says Hicks, who has served three tours of combat. “I get COIN. I get all that. McChrystal comes here, explains it, it makes sense. But then he goes away on his bird, and by the time his directives get passed down to us through Big Army, they’re all fu***d up – either because somebody is trying to cover their ass, or because they just don’t understand it themselves. But we’re fu****g losing this thing.”
McChrystal and his team show up the next day. Underneath a tent, the general has a 45-minute discussion with some two dozen soldiers. The atmosphere is tense. “I ask you what’s going on in your world, and I think it’s important for you all to understand the big picture as well,” McChrystal begins. “How’s the company doing? You guys feeling sorry for yourselves? Anybody? Anybody feel like you’re losing?” McChrystal says.
“Sir, some of the guys here, sir, think we’re losing, sir,” says Hicks.
McChrystal nods. “Strength is leading when you just don’t want to lead,” he tells the men. “You’re leading by example. That’s what we do. Particularly when it’s really, really hard, and it hurts inside.” Then he spends 20 minutes talking about counterinsurgency, diagramming his concepts and principles on a whiteboard. He makes COIN seem like common sense, but he’s careful not to bullshit the men. “We are knee-deep in the decisive year,” he tells them. The Taliban, he insists, no longer has the initiative – “but I don’t think we do, either.” It’s similar to the talk he gave in Paris, but it’s not winning any hearts and minds among the soldiers. “This is the philosophical part that works with think tanks,” McChrystal tries to joke. “But it doesn’t get the same reception from infantry companies.”
During the question-and-answer period, the frustration boils over. The soldiers complain about not being allowed to use lethal force, about watching insurgents they detain be freed for lack of evidence. They want to be able to fight – like they did in Iraq, like they had in Afghanistan before McChrystal. “We aren’t putting fear into the Taliban,” one soldier says.
“Winning hearts and minds in COIN is a coldblooded thing,” McChrystal says, citing an oft-repeated maxim that you can’t kill your way out of Afghanistan. “The Russians killed 1 million Afghans, and that didn’t work.”
“I’m not saying go out and kill everybody, sir,” the soldier persists. “You say we’ve stopped the momentum of the insurgency. I don’t believe that’s true in this area. The more we pull back, the more we restrain ourselves, the stronger it’s getting.”
“I agree with you,” McChrystal says. “In this area, we’ve not made progress, probably. You have to show strength here, you have to use fire. What I’m telling you is, fire costs you. What do you want to do? You want to wipe the population out here and resettle it?”
A soldier complains that under the rules, any insurgent who doesn’t have a weapon is immediately assumed to be a civilian. “That’s the way this game is,” McChrystal says. “It’s complex. I can’t just decide: It’s shirts and skins, and we’ll kill all the shirts.”
As the discussion ends, McChrystal seems to sense that he hasn’t succeeded at easing the men’s anger. He makes one last-ditch effort to reach them, acknowledging the death of Cpl. Ingram. “There’s no way I can make that easier,” he tells them. “No way I can pretend it won’t hurt. No way I can tell you not to feel that. . . . I will tell you, you’re doing a great job. Don’t let the frustration get to you.” The session ends with no clapping, and no real resolution. McChrystal may have sold President Obama on counterinsurgency, but many of his own men aren’t buying it.
A lot of people back here haven’t been buying it either. So-called population centric warfare is a fool’s errand. Trying to protect civilians while clearing out the “bad guys” only puts the the troops more at risk, civilians get hurt anyway and the Taliban, well they get to slip back into the shadows, feeding off the elaborate shakedown rackets and a seemingly endless source of support from the population we hope to protect. A vicious cycle. So what is the alternative? McChrystal put his finger on it a bit. Classic counterinsurgency, like what was practiced by the British in the Boer Wars, engaged in pacification, putting women and children in concentration camps. And, as Stan alluded to, just wiping people out. Breaking them down. I don’t think that is what the American people want.
So, the other alternative is disengagement, withdrawal. COINdinista Andrew Exum has already picked up on this from his own reading of the COIN criticisms in the Rolling Stone piece:
Disengagement from Afghanistan? Okay, but what would the costs and benefits of that disengagement be? I am frustrated by the reluctance of the legions of counterinsurgency skeptics to be honest about — or even discuss — the costs and benefits of alternatives. Some do, but not many.
Yes. I wish for that debate to happen. Like right now.
In the meantime, I do not see this Hastings report as a bad thing. It puts the war squarely in the laps of the COINdinistas, where it should be. On it’s current trajectory, the war will fail and the people who own the strategy should be held responsible for it. This might sound like a no-brainer, but the hawks are already trying to fob this mess off on Obama and the White House as the primary puppetmasters of this clusterf***k. I think it’s good to remind the American people that there are a few generals and a posse of “killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs” who made sure they were “in charge” from the very beginning.