Gen. Stanley McChrystal, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, set off the rumbles of a political storm last week by saying publicly, during a speech in London, that a more limited strategy than the one he's proposing would lead to failure in the war against the Taliban.
Was McChrystal exercising his right to free speech and his obligation to express his honest military judgment—or was he broaching the military chain of command and the constitutional principle of civilian control over the armed forces?
Discussion of his speech also invoked memories of the six retired generals who publicly criticized President George W. Bush's defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the spring of 2006 for his decisions in the Iraq war—especially his failure to send enough troops to topple Saddam Hussein and to impose order afterward.
Some hailed the retired generals as heroes; others criticized them for not putting up a tougher fight against Rumsfeld while they were still on active duty and thus in a position of influence—or for not resigning in protest and speaking out in public before the war got under way.
Was McChrystal merely doing what some of the Iraq-era generals wish they had done sooner? Or are there important distinctions to be drawn?
McChrystal made his speech soon after the Washington Post printed a leaked copy of his 66-page memo to President Barack Obama, in which he recommended the adoption of a full-blown counterinsurgency strategy, which would require, among other things, a long commitment and many more U.S. troops—and stating that failure to provide sufficient troops would result in defeat. (Though the memo cited no numbers, McChrystal will reportedly urge Obama to send another 40,000 troops on top of the 60,000 already there.)
The leak and the speech came in the wake of President Obama's announcement that he was reassessing the entire strategy for the Afghan war, including options that would entail a smaller increase of troops than McChrystal is suggesting or perhaps no increase at all. A strategic review of all options was, and still is, going on, with Obama consulting his top civilian and military advisers.
It should be noted that McChystal made his controversial comment during the question-and-answer period, not in the text of the speech itself (which had been approved at higher levels). It is not at all clear—in fact, it is rather doubtful—that, at this point anyway, McChrystal is a conscious dissident.
Still, the key moment came when someone in the audience asked him whether a pared-down counterterrorism strategy would work in Afghanistan—a strategy merely of hunting down Taliban fighters rather than a counterinsurgency strategy, which would focus on protecting the Afghan population. McChrystal replied, "The short answer is: No."
He didn't mention any officials, but it is well-known that Vice President Joe Biden has been pushing for just such a pared-down strategy and that the option, among others, has been discussed in President Obama's strategic-review sessions.
As a sign of how seriously this breech in the chain of command is being taken, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said on Monday, in the middle of an otherwise routine speech to the Association of the U.S. Army:
[I]t is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations—civilian and military alike—provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately. And speaking for the Department of Defense, once the commander-in-chief makes his decisions, we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability.
(Gates' spokesman, Geoff Morrell, later said the comment was not directed at McChrystal specifically, but the message was clear.)
Some officers or officials are clearly trying to pressure Obama into sending more troops. (That was almost certainly the intent behind the leaking of McChrystal's memo.) If Obama rejects their advice, what options do they have before them?
Two principles are hammered into the minds and reflexes of every American military officer, and at certain times they collide and spark tension. Both take off from the premise of civilian control over the military, a premise taken very seriously by everyone.