Gen. Stanley McChrystal should never have been the top commander in Afghanistan. He’s a rogue and a bully, politically and militarily, and he’s dishonest in the most dishonorable way: he signed off on the cover-up of the killing by his own troops of Pat Tillman, the NFL star who became an Army Ranger. McChrystal falsified the documents that lied to Tillman’s family. “The false narrative, which McChrystal clearly helped construct, diminished Pat’s true action,” Tillman’s mother, Mary, wrote.
Tillman was one victim. But McChrystal has been falsifying the narrative in Afghanistan since becoming commander there, pretending and preaching, like Gen. William Westmoreland in Vietnam 40 years before him, that more troops and more resolve can win in Afghanistan as no foreign army has won there since Gengis Khan. More troops and more resolve have killed more troops and more civilians while sapping soldiers’ faith: Some of McChrystal’s biggest doubters are his own troops.
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I’m not saying this because McChrystal was just fired. I’m a McChrystal doubter of long date. McChrystal, I wrote last Oct. 1, “with his chat-and-snub strategy of outflanking Obama through the press while rebuffing Congress, appears to be choreographing his own political pressure tactics. The last thing the Afghan debacle needs is a neo-MacArthur presuming more than his command warrants.” It was a debacle then. Obama worsened it by letting McChrystal lead it on.
In October, McChrystal was planting stories in the press, leaking a 66-page memo that all but made Obama look like a coward if he didn’t put up at least 40,000 more troops, and refusing to testify before Congress. What finally brought McChrystal down was the sort of locker-room behavior that was no secret to anyone who knew McChrystal and his entourage since his middling and drunkard days at West Point (he’s reformed, and imposed his teetotaler ways on troops under his command): making fun, in that now notorious Rolling Stone article, of Joe Biden and speaking contemptuously of Obama and every member of the president’s foreign-policy team with the exception of, amazingly, Hillary Clinton, the weakest non-entity in Obama’s foreign policy team.
The contempt is deserved. Obama’s foreign policy team is as fractured and arrogant as the French national soccer team. But the contempt isn’t deserved from McChrystal, whose strategy in Afghanistan was itself predicated on the lie that there is something winnable there or something useful to win. Neither is the case.
Which is why his firing speaks more ill of Barack Obama than it does of McChrystal. Not because the firing was overdue, but because McChrystal should never have been hired, especially not in the hurried, uninformed way Obama hired him: on the advice of Pentagon brass, the last place a new president should have looked for advice on how to run Afghanistan after eight years of Pentagon failures there. Afghanistan required a more rational analysis of what’s possible, exit strategies included, and who’s best equipped to carry it through.
McChrystal, predisposed to worship the impossible as a reflection of his exceptionalism, was a man out of the Bush administration’s playbook, not Obama’s: McChrystal seconded Bush Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when Rumsfeld foolishly described the falling apart of Iraq as “stuff happens,” and he seconded Bush’s own “Mission Accomplished” declaration that all major combat operations in Iraq were over by May 1, 2003, when they had barely begun. Obama picked him anyway, and wedded his Afghan fortune to McChrystal’s idiotically acronymed “COIN” strategy—for “counterinsurgency.” The strategy, a form of community policing with extra-lethal weapons and boots ready to kick down any door, was little more than the re-application of Iraq’s pacification campaign to Afghanistan, as if the two countries were one and the same. They’re as different as, say, New Jersey is from Nepal. But hey: they’re both Muslim nations, they’re both in the Greater Middle East, so how difficult could it be to fit them under the same Pentagon acronym?
Even after picking McChrystal, Obama in October and November had a chance to make his break with the Bush administration and come up with a new strategy in Afghanistan—one that recognizes that there are no Afghans who want to blow up Americans (although there will be), that there are no American interests in Afghanistan, that the Taliban is not America’s fight, and that al-Qaeda is in Pakistan, and hasn’t been in Afghanistan for nine years. The strategy could have also recognized that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a corrupt incompetent more interested in his palace power than in running a country, let alone cooperating with the Americans beyond getting his hands on American aid. Most critically, Obama could have stopped pretending that a bankrupt America abandoned by virtually all of its allies can still rebuild a country that even God had little left for. (The old Afghan story goes that when God was finished making the world, he took all his leftovers, threw them together, and that was Afghanistan.)
Instead, Obama took up where Bush left off, added more troops, threw more money at the folly, and called it a new strategy. McChrystal was his cover. Bad choice. McChrystal blew it? Not so: McChrystal was an improvising explosive diva waiting to blow. He did. He would have anyway.
McChrystal’s firing is the latest cover-up of a failure far larger than McChrystal’s, a failure that Obama now owns entire, and that will only increase the number of American and Afghan deaths to no purpose. This month, June 2010, the Afghan war became America’s longest in history. It is also America’s most futile. Vietnam ended. Afghanistan has no end in sight. Worse, despite the lessons not learned of October and November, despite the lesson not learned of the McChrystal debacle, despite the lesson not learned of the winter’s failed Marja offensive in southern Afghanistan—the offensive that was played up as the Obama administration’s turning point in the war, with McChrystal in the lead—despite all that, Obama on Wednesday announced that nothing will change in Afghanistan.
McChrystal is gone. The strategy remains the same. All that was needed to accent the madness was that famous phrase of the Bush era (and the Westmoreland era): stay the course.
Obama didn’t have to use the phrase. He appointed it. The man replacing McChrystal is Gen. David Petraeus, which is a demotion of sorts. Petraeus was McChrystal’s commander, and Bush’s designated architect of the Iraqi escalation of 2007-2008. Petraeus is now the 10th commander in nine years over the Afghan theater, or the latest custodian of that indestructible hammer nailing America’s coffins.