Wednesday, June 30, 2010

COIN toss:
Making changes, or not, in Afghanistan

With the dismissal of Stanley McChrystal, the most persistent stone in the shoe of President Obama's authority over the military role in Afghanistan, the administration faces hard choices in the summer and fall ahead. Ironically enough, one of the first things to consult as a guide to a post-McChrystal military coalition may be the dire, downbeat assessment McChrystal himself came up with last year.

McChrystal was a mighty distraction, and his comments about the president (as reported at length in Rolling Stone) led to a fall he deserved to take. Obama rightly cashiered the general as a way to, if nothing else, reassert the civilian control over the military in a big and public way. The media weighed in furiously on the matter of keeping him in place as the top U.S. commander on the ground in Afghanistan, or firing him. Everyone had a Chicken Little scenario as to how U.S. forces, or Obama's political prospects, would be adversely affected if Saint Stanley was dismissed.

My man Kevin at Brown Man Thinking Hard discovered something that's not speculation -- namely, the price McChrystal had to pay for his insolence, not according to President Obama but according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice:

UCMJ article 88: "Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct."

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Taking that into account, the issue of whether McChrystal had to go was off the table. It was all a matter of the optics. He's history (until he shows up with an analyst's gig on Fox). But the general left many stones to mark his departure, among them, last year, his own dire assessment of the American military posture in Afghanistan.

In September, McChrystal released a "Commander's Summary" of the U.S./NATO military effort. In the assessment, McChrystal wrote that if the Taliban's momentum could not be stemmed or reversed in the following 12 months, defeating that insurgency may no longer be possible.

"Time matters; we must act now to reverse the negative trends and demonstrate progress," he wrote. Ten months ago.

How much credence his replacement in Afghanistan will give that downbeat assessment is anyone's guess, but Gen. David Petraeus, who'll take McChrystal's place in Afghanistan, has indicated he intends to give everything a second look (consistent with the previously announced timetable, "conditions-based," to begin a drawdown of Americans in Afghanistan in July 2011).

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In the past, as the top U.S. commander of forces in Iraq, Petraeus has come as close to the soldier-statesman as anyone since Colin Powell. In past testimony before various congressional committees, Petraeus has impressed with an ability to speak strategically without vacating the need to be sensitive to the politicians. Maybe that's why Petraeus' name has been bruited now and then as that of a possible contender for the presidency.

On June 29, the Senate Armed Services Committee recommended him to the full Senate for confirmation (after a committee hearing that amounted to a bipartisan love feast by the senators). For the members of the committee, Petraeus is the George Marshall to McChrystal's not-quite George Patton. But as Petraeus gets ready to start his assignment in Kabul, he clearly realizes, like his predecessor, that this is crunch time for U.S. forces there, and that the success of the counterinsurgency doctrine (now shorthanded as COIN) is very much up in the air.

In Afghan culture, the summer fighting season is as reliable as the change in the seasons. American forces, despite having their numbers punched up recently by President Obama's addition of troops, face not only the continued dogged resistance of Taliban fighters, but also (some soldiers have said) the challenge of being handcuffed by the rules of engagement favoring protection of Afghan civilians from errant airstrikes by U.S. and NATO forces.

Petraeus was sensitive to homefront perceptions when he testified on Tuesday. "I want to assure the mothers and fathers of those fighting in Afghanistan that I see it as a moral imperative to bring all assets to bear to protect our men and women in uniform," he said Tuesday. "Those on the ground must have all the support they need when they are in a tough situation."

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It was the necessary rhetorical concession to domestic concerns -- among them, the worries of those mothers and fathers facing the prospect of War Without End in Afghanistan; and the concerns of politicians, various thought leaders, and maybe some of the generals themselves that the Afghan war may be unwinnable, by conventional military metrics anyway.

Now Petraeus, certainly game to put his face on the U.S. Afghan strategy, faces the challenge of opting to make changes in McChrystal's COIN doctrine -- even as Petraeus likely confronts the probability that much of that strategy needs to stay in place.

It's important to remember: McChrystal was replaced for outbursts of gross insubordination, not for incompetence or a disastrous or embarrassing blunder to be laid at his feet. The general's fundamental abilities as a soldier and strategist were never in question during the recent controversy. That fact, and the need for Petraeus to project continuity in U.S. military planning, suggest that in the short term, little is likely to change for American forces in Afghanistan.

What changes overnight is the style of leadership, Petraeus' measured, noncombative approach a nice trade-up for McChrystal's harder edge. What can't be expected to change immediately, and maybe ever, is the substance of this shift of command. Obama tasked McChrystal with execution of an administration strategy that accelerates the prospect for American troops getting out of Afghanistan. Now that job falls to Petraeus.

Much has been made of Obama's "conditions-based" plan to begin withdrawal of forces from Afghan next July. The phrase "conditions-based" has turned into a kind of rhetorical tripwire, a phrasal hot button subject to long and furious debate as to what conditions would thwart that timetable. Hawk of hawks Arizona Sen. John McCain pushed back fast against Obama's July '11 time frame.

But it's a matter of perspective. The phrase "conditions-based" is meant to be one of a reactive posture, but it makes sense, too, that the greatest military force in the world should have as much of a hand in determining those conditions as the enemy. Petraeus is the new general to move those conditions in the favor of the military of the United States.
Image credits: McChrystal: Jerry Morrison. Petraeus: video still.

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