‘I only wrote a page and a half about it, because that’s all it warranted in my life,” General Stanley McChrystal says of the 2010 Rolling Stone article that led to his resignation as the top U.S. general in Afghanistan. The general is as circumspect about that incident as he is about nearly everything else he covers in his new memoir, My Share of the Task, which chronicles his rise from rebellious West Point cadet to four-star general, commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, and then head of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
McChrystal’s prose may be discreet, but his explanation of the Obama administration’s prosecution of the war in Afghanistan, where the president charged McChrystal with reversing the tide of a losing war, is damning.
In an interview with National Review Online, McChrystal explains that, from the outset, the president found himself hamstrung by his own campaign promises. The candidate who proudly cited his opposition to the Iraq war had also vowed to do more on the battlefield in Afghanistan. “There was a certain amount of rhetoric he had put out there,” McChrystal says, and “suddenly the potential cost and complexity of living up to that was going to be probably higher than some people had anticipated.”
Those lofty promises then fell on an administration whose senior members lacked the strategic understanding necessary to begin to meet them. In the 2008 campaign, Obama asserted that “only a comprehensive strategy that prioritizes Afghanistan and the fight against al-Qaeda will succeed, and that’s the change I’ll bring to the White House.”
But his administration wasn’t quite up to the task. McChrystal recounts a meeting of the president and his senior staff, which the general joined via teleconference from Afghanistan. “I began the briefing by explaining the mission as I understood it: ‘Defeat the Taliban. Secure the population,’” he writes. “It prompted a participant on the other screen to ask why I interpreted our mission as requiring the destruction or eradication of the Taliban.” The following day, McChrystal presented “the sources from which we’d derived the mission we’d used for our assessment, including the president’s public speeches and the marching orders that flowed from the administration’s March strategy review” — which clearly mandated defeat of the Taliban. That information, he concluded, “seemed to surprise some of the participants in the session.”
As to whether there’s more clarity about the mission in Afghanistan today than there was at the time of that episode, McChrystal is less than sanguine: “I can’t speak for today, but I think that the mission in Afghanistan has been difficult for people to understand from the start, all the way back to 2001.” In particular, policymakers grappled with how to handle the expansion of America’s mission, which had shifted from eliminating al-Qaeda in the region to rebuilding Afghanistan. McChrystal suggests that the Obama administration “struggled with that. I think it’s understandable, but it’s a reality.”
In 2009, at the president’s behest, McChrystal completed a sweeping assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, which sounded the alarm about the need for “an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency campaign that earns the support of the Afghan people and provides them with a secure government,” complemented by an “unwavering commitment to see it through to success.”
But when announcing the troop increase that same year, President Obama also outlined a timeline for withdrawal. “After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home,” he said. Six months later, the president signaled a total withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan by 2014.
It is the president’s decisions about troop levels, however, that seem to have generated the most friction between the White House and the Pentagon. McChrystal describes the “emergence of an unfortunate deficit of trust between the White House and the Department of Defense, largely arising from the decision-making process in Afghanistan,” noting that, “over time, the effects were costly.” McChrystal’s predecessor in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, had requested 30,000 additional troops; the president decided on 17,000. McChrystal himself requested 40,000 additional troops to wage a counterinsurgency effort capable of protecting the population and boosting its morale; he got 30,000.
Such half measures, implemented on a delayed timetable, concerned military planners, McChrystal among them. “Forces are shaped and deployed in packages to ensure they have every capability required,” McChrystal writes. “Also, military leaders, many of whom were students of counterinsurgency, recognized the dangers of incremental escalation, and the historical lesson that ‘trailing’ an insurgency typically condemned the counterinsurgents to failure.”
Since the commander’s retirement, the Obama administration has officially abandoned the counterinsurgency strategy McChrystal recommended in 2009, previously outlined by General Petraeus in the Army and Marine Corps’ field manual and implemented by him in Iraq. The president has made it clear, especially by tapping assassination enthusiast John Brennan to head the CIA, that, for now, as far as the nation’s military strategy is concerned, counterinsurgency is out and targeted killing is in.
I asked McChrystal whether, given the current situation, the U.S. can still accomplish its objectives in Afghanistan. He says that the additional troops constituted “a demonstrable commitment on the part of the West to get this right.” But, he asks, “the challenge is, did, or can governments follow [their commitment] to the point where it’s legitimate enough?” His answer: “I think that’s a question mark.”
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.