The politicization of the analysis of American generalship is one of the worst consequences of the partisan excesses of the past several years. Whether it was Gen. David Petraeus in 2007 or Gen. Stanley McChrystal today, far too many commentators on both sides of the aisle have become comfortable saying that commanders who offer recommendations the critics don’t like are doing so because they have become captive of some ideology. Petraeus was charged with carrying water for the Bush administration’s supposed crusade to spread democracy throughout the world. Now McChrystal is accused of committing the soldiers under his command to needless death and maiming out of a misplaced sense of political correctness inspired by Barack Obama.
The reality is that America’s commanders over the last eight years have consistently given their best professional military advice, making the recommendations they thought would achieve the goals set for them by their political masters. That includes all of our commanders: Tommy Franks, Ricardo Sanchez, John Abizaid, George Casey, David Barno, Karl Eikenberry, Dan McNeill, David McKiernan, David Petraeus, Ray Odierno, and now Stan McChrystal. Some of them were right, some were tragically wrong. But not a single one of them made a recommendation to his superiors or gave an order to his soldiers that he did not think would lead to the success of his mission. American commanders simply do not do such things, and it is time to stop trying to avoid serious discussions of strategy by claiming that they do.
General McChrystal and the team that drafted his assessment and policy recommendations (full disclosure: I was a member of that team in June and July) may be wrong, of course. War is extremely complex, and no one is infallible. But before consigning the McChrystal assessment to the dust-bin of history, we owe it to such a commander to consider carefully the possibility that the sophistication in the document is not simply pseudo-intellectual code for political correctness. It may in fact represent an attempt to grapple with the real complexities of the situation on the ground as seen by officers who have spent years of their lives operating in Afghanistan against our enemies — something that none of their defenders or critics among the chattering classes (myself included) can say.
Andy McCarthy’s attack on McChrystal in this regard is particularly odd. McChrystal should be Andy’s hero: As commander of U.S. special-forces efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than four straight years, McChrystal is responsible for killing and capturing thousands of Islamist terrorists. As the recent 60 Minutes interview revealed, McChrystal has personally accompanied his soldiers on some of those raids. He’s met the enemy fighters Andy so rightly wants to target — met some of them rather personally. This war has not been a clinical or theoretical exercise for McChrystal, nor has it been the stuff of Foreign Affairs essays. It has been as dirty and bloody as anything Andy McCarthy or Ralph Peters could desire. One thing no one can say about McChrystal is that he has a problem killing the enemy.
A number of things have drawn the ire of otherwise staunch supporters of our military and their leaders in recent weeks: McChrystal’s insistence on the pursuit of counterinsurgency operations rather than kill-and-capture operations; the changes to both force-protection and escalation-of-force procedures that McChrystal has implemented or recommended in Afghanistan; and the rising belief among some that, since President Obama does not seem prepared to do everything they would like to see in the fight against Islamist militancy, we should not support him at all.
Why can’t we just kill bad guys? First, because it doesn’t work. As McChrystal himself discovered in Iraq, simply killing bad guys does not destroy terrorist networks. On the contrary, after American troops had killed many hundreds, al-Qaeda in Iraq was more effective than it had been before we started. We’ve been killing bad guys in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 9/11. Periodically we kill bad guys in Somalia and elsewhere. In none of these areas, however, have we been able to kill bad guys faster than they can replenish their ranks. Targeted strikes create opportunities for upward mobility in terrorist groups, to be sure, but there is not yet any example of such strikes destroying a terrorist group — despite unthinkable numbers of staff-hours, smart bombs, flight hours, intelligence assets, and so on devoted to the effort.