What Rolling Stone's profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal reveals about our fractured command in Afghanistan.

Military analysis.
June 22 2010 6:35 PM

Who's in Charge Here?

What Rolling Stone's McChrystal profile reveals about our fractured command in Afghanistan.

Also in Slate, read John Dickerson on Gen. Stanley McChrystal's gaffe. 

Gen McChrystal. Click image to expand.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal

Is Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, about to get fired? Should he be?

As everyone now knows, freelance (and former Newsweek) reporter Michael Hastings has an article in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, quoting McChrystal and his staff officers talking dirt about their civilian superiors from President Barack Obama on down.

One aide calls Gen. Jim Jones, Obama's national security adviser, a "clown" who's "stuck in 1985." Another makes a word play on "Biden" and "bite me." Another says that "the Boss" (i.e., McChrystal) was "pretty disappointed" by his first meeting with the president. McChrystal himself moans when he gets an e-mail from Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and doesn't even bother reading its contents.

Three points need to be made here.

First, this is not MacArthur vs. Truman. (President Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur, at the time the wildly popular U.S. commander in Korea, for defying his orders to refrain from attacking China.) It's not even Fallon vs. Bush. (President George W. Bush fired Adm. William "Fox" Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command, for publicly advocating a speedier pullout from Iraq than Bush had already ordered.)


In fact, nowhere in the article is McChrystal or any of his aides quoted as disagreeing with Obama's policy on Afghanistan. It would be a big surprise if they were, as Obama's strategic decision in December 2009—to send 30,000 more troops and to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy—was essentially an endorsement of McChrystal's recommendation. (It should be noted that the article's subheadline—which says that McChrystal "has seized control of the war" because he sees "the real enemy" as "the wimps in the White House"—is grossly distorting and may be responsible for some of the early misreporting before the actual article went online. Hastings said in an interview with NPR that he did not write the headline.)

Second, with one exception, none of the trash talk in the article comes from McChrystal. It all comes from his aides. The one exception is the Holbrooke e-mail diss, and it's farfetched to regard that as crossing some red line of civilian control.

It's also worth noting that Obama is barely criticized by anyone. Hastings quotes an aide as saying that McChrystal regarded his first one-on-one meeting with the president as "a 10-minute photo-op" and that he was "pretty disappointed" because the president "clearly didn't know anything about him" or "who he was."

The same aide says that McChrystal thought Obama looked "uncomfortable and intimidated" at his first meeting with the brass early on in his presidency. (For what it's worth, shortly after that meeting I talked with two officials who were there; both were deeply impressed with Obama and surprised at his ease of command.)

It's unclear whether all this reflects the general's egomania, his staff's slavishness, or (most likely) both. In any case, it doesn't quite amount to insubordination.

Nonetheless, and this is the damning third point, the fact that it's "just staff officers" talking like this doesn't let McChrystal off the hook. In fact, the story suggests that, on some level (and how serious a level is something for Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to find out), McChrystal's operation is out of control.

McChrystal is clearly a charismatic commander: ascetic, tough as nails, strategically smart, and as demanding of himself as he is of those around him. These sorts of commanders inspire deep loyalty from their inner circle, especially in wartime. In McChrystal's case, it has inspired idolatry. It's been widely observed that his aides see themselves not merely as aides but as disciples to a warrior-god.

If McChrystal's aides diss the vice president and shake their heads about the president (outraged that Obama didn't seem to know who Stanley McChrystal was!), it's a fair bet (though not a certainty) that they've heard the man himself make similar remarks.

In some scenes in the Rolling Stone story, aides make jabs at civilian authority in McChrystal's presence—with, apparently, no approbation or dissent on the general's part. (In a statement issued this morning, McChrystal didn't deny any part of the story; instead, he apologized and expressed "enormous respect and admiration for President Obama and his national security team.")

What seems clear is that McChrystal has sown, or in any case tolerates, an atmosphere of disrespect for the civilian chain of command. And the fact that his entourage feels free to talk like this in front of not just him but a reporter—much less a reporter from Rolling Stone—speaks volumes about how far they've burrowed into their cocoon.

The whole business reflects something else at least as serious—the fractured state of this war and the utter disunity of command. The tension between McChrystal and Gen. Karl Eikenberry, once his rival and now the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, continues to seethe months after it should have been tamped down or one of them should have been let go. Holbrooke's role as envoy has been unclear ever since Afghan President Hamid Karzai declared, after getting yelled at one time too many, that he never wanted to meet with him again. And the International Security Assistance Force, the multinational alliance that runs the "coalition" headquarters in Kabul, is widely regarded as a fig leaf and a dysfunctional one at that.

When command lines are less than straight, and when a war is going less than well (it was McChrystal who called the campaign in Helmand province a "bleeding ulcer"), backbiting often ensues.


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