That Rolling Stone article on McChrystal

I'm no Afghanistan or military policy expert, but since everyone is talking about it, I thought I'd put out my own non-specialist two cents on the McChrystal Affair. That's the point of a blog, after all.

Quite aside from its immediate political consequences and the fact that McChrystal might lose his job over it, the article and its fallout raises several interesting questions. Michael Hastings, the journalist who wrote it, is definitely an anti-COIN person. But he does raise valid points about the Achilles' heel of McChrystal and other advocates of COIN strategy in Afghanistan: they lack confidence in the potential for success of their strategy, always adding caveats and saying it's going to be a long and tough affair, but rarely think this alone is ground for rethinking the usefulness of COIN. I would echo, and mirror, the points made by my friend Andrew Exum, a very thoughtful and reasonable COINdinista:

As much as critics of counterinsurgency like to blame Gen. McChrystal (and nefarious think-tankers, of course) for the current strategy, the reality is that the civilian decision-makers in the Obama Administration conducted two high-level reviews in 2009 and twice arrived at a national strategy focused on conducting counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. I suspect the president will not replace the man he has put in charge of executing that strategy with just 12 months to go before we begin a withdrawal. On the other hand, there are those who will argue that the principle of civilian control over the military is more important than whatever national interests we have in Afghanistan. And that is a legitimate argument to make. We just need to be honest about the risks both courses of action carry with them.

Obama decided to take up that policy, which some in the military and think-tanks aggressively fought for. At this point, the pro- or anti-COIN debate has taken such importance that there are high political stakes, not just for Obama but also for COIN advocates who see themselves as some kind of vanguard — which is exactly the way McChrystal's gang appears in the article. 

And we should not forget another point Exum makes here:

 In a weird way, Hastings is making the argument to readers of Rolling Stone (Rolling Stone!) that counterinsurgency sucks because it doesn't allow our soldiers to kill enough people. What, pray tell, is Hastings' alternative to counterinsurgency? Disengagement from Afghanistan? Okay, but what would the costs and benefits of that disengagement be? I am frustrated by the reluctance of the legions of counterinsurgency skeptics to be honest about -- or even discuss -- the costs and benefits of alternatives. Some do, but not many.

I'm not qualified to even start thinking about suggesting alternative military policies, but like any American I can express a simple distaste for prolonging a military adventure indefinitely and not particularly care for expending treasure and blood for the future of Afghanistan. Let Afghanistan's neighbors take care of it, and just ensure the country does not become a base of operations for transnational terrorists again. I'm not even sure to what extent Afghanistan was crucial to 9/11 anyway, aside as a place where Osama Bin Laden could spend his time in relative safety. Surely the Hamburg cell was more important.

One last thing: to me, the most striking thing is that the offensive comments made by McChrystal and his teams speak not necessarily of insubordination, but a besieged groupthink mentality centered around protecting a charismatic leader — McChrystal himself. I don't particularly care about the loudmouthed camaraderie around McChrystal, and in fact I find much of it rather funny. But one gets a rather worrying sense that these guys are not just doing their job, but have a grander sense of mission and a point to prove. And that makes me feel uneasy.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.