Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Spencer Ackerman has been calling it McClusterfuck. That sounds pretty accurate to me. The Rolling Stone profile of Stanley McChrystal has set off a firestorm. You really need to read the piece to get a feel for just how damaging it is. In short, he and his aids made several disparaging comments about the Obama national security apparatus while on the record with a freelancer working for Rolling Stone. They focused on Ambassador Eikenberry, special envoy Richard Holbrooke, Joe Biden and NSA Jim Jones. I have several jumbled thoughts that the article sparked, in no particular order:

  • Clearly, the reporter, Michael Hastings, and Rolling Stone are not fans of our strategy in Afghanistan. What they think is a better idea is unclear, however.
  • I have no doubt that a lot of this stuff gets said on the staff of any flag officer, particularly one in an environment as trying as Afghanistan. What makes it completely idiotic bad is that they said it on the record. Rolling Stone's Eric Bates said on Morning Joe that the article was extensively fact-checked and that they did not blur the lines between on and off the record. Obviously that can be taken with a grain of salt, but judging by the lack of pushback by the McChrystal camp, it doesn't sound like any shady journalism is at fault here.
  • Obama has every right to be incredibly pissed off. This is not the first time that McChrystal has shot his mouth off and caused problems for the administration. He badmouthed Biden in a London Q&A and his office leaked a confidential cable from Amb Eikenberry. It's hard to see how Obama can get through this without firing him.

From an operational/strategic standpoint, this article has a lot of bad news.

  • The troops don't all buy in to the strategy. Hastings (probably cherry-picks) a number of quotes from soldiers who don't like pop-centric COIN and want to kill more baddies. 
  • As I've said many times, the Karzai government is not confidence-inspiring. Karzai seems clueless and corrupt, as always.
  • The military and civilian leadership in Afghanistan (McChrystal and Eikenberry) appear to hate each other. One of the putative reasons for Gen. McKiernan's dismissal and McChrystal's installment as the commander in Afghanistan was because of McKiernan's bad relationship with Eikenberry. COIN is not just a military effort, it is vital that the military works closely with civilian leadership. The military is good at blowing stuff up and killing bad guys, but COIN depends on responsible governance and infrastructure-building. The rift between Eikenberry and McChrystal is unsustainable. This shouldn't be pinned entirely on McChrystal, as Eikenberry has had his moments as well. But it looks as if one of them must go.

I am more pessimistic than ever about the likelihood of success in Afghanistan. This quote doesn't fill me with confidence that we can do a sober analysis of costs and benefits in Afghanistan:

"If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular," a senior adviser to McChrystal says. Such realism, however, doesn't prevent advocates of counterinsurgency from dreaming big: Instead of beginning to withdraw troops next year, as Obama promised, the military hopes to ramp up its counterinsurgency campaign even further. "There's a possibility we could ask for another surge of U.S. forces next summer if we see success here," a senior military official in Kabul tells me.

If conditions in Afghanistan have not noticeably improved by July 2011, I believe it would be irresponsible to double down on a strategy that does not appear to be working. As Exum pointed out a week ago, the "surge worked in Iraq" narrative is simplistic and misleading. There were many factors that led to a decrease in violence in Iraq. The Sunni Awakening and Sadrist cease-fire were key factors of which there are not equivalents in Afghanistan. I appreciate what we're trying to do in Afghanistan, and that to some extent we caused the mess. I also appreciate that our current strategy probably has the best chance of something we can call success. But if it fails, we should be realistic about that, as well. OEF is already the longest war in American history. If we fail after a decade, will another decade help?

Spencer Ackerman makes a point to post the DoD press release each time a soldier dies in OEF or OIF. It's a small memorial and a constant reminder of the human cost of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Reading those names nearly every day, one can't help but ask if they're losing their lives for a lost cause.


  1. Matt, I appreciate that your pessimism about Afghanistan is nuanced, as opposed to that of the Rolling Stone writer. And doubling down on a seemingly hopeless cause certainly sounds like a bad idea. But I take it you agree that Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, was not a discretionary conflict -- given the symbiotic relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda, it was necessary to attack. If that is so, as bad as doubling down might be, isn't it worse to withdraw?

  2. I largely agree that Afghanistan is a "war of necessity" as Richard Haas would put it. I'm 99% certain that I would have done the same as President Bush after 9/11. No argument there.

    I've not read enough about this, but it strikes me (and I've read) that the years of relative neglect in Afghanistan as the Bush administration went into Iraq have caused serious damage to the situation in Afghanistan.

    But the bottom line and reason for my pessimism is this: We've been in Afghanistan for almost a decade now. In that time, conditions have not gotten better since the invasion, they have steadily deteriorated. The terrorists that we are in Afghanistan to fight are mostly in Pakistan, where we will not be invading any time soon. The government that we have to work with is hopelessly corrupt.

    By the time July 2011 rolls around, it will have been close to 11 years since OEF began. If we have been unable to accomplish our goals in 11 years, who's to say we can in 15? 20? Where do you draw the line? When is the cost, in lives and money, too much?

    Complicating things is the fact that counterinsurgency theory says that things will get worse before they get better. Clearly, things have been getting worse in Afghanistan. We do, however, have a year before we even begin a phased draw-down of troops. I don't necessarily think we need to leave now, the July 2011 benchmark is as good as any. BUT! If by July 2011, we've clearly not made progress and the situation continues to look hopeless, I hope that the Obama administration will give serious thought to leaving, despite the job being unfinished. If our goals are unachievable, or only achievable after 20+ years of occupation, is it in our best interest to continue to strive toward those goals?

    I don't have the answers to these questions, and we clearly need to wait a while to see. (If there's anything COIN theory is clear on, it's that it is a long and hard fight. "Eating soup with a knife," as TE Lawrence put it.) But I just hope we don't get stuck trying to win an unwinnable war for another decade.

    Is pulling out worse than staying? That depends on your definition, I suppose. But with each passing year, and each death of another young American, the argument gets harder to make that leaving is worse than staying. If there were light at the end of the tunnel, I might be more sanguine about sticking it out. But that light looks more like a freight train comin' my way.