x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

General McChrystal's Afghan war

The US commander in Afghanistan is at the centre of a debate ithat mayl determine the course of both the war and the Obama presidency.

As the US president, Barack Obama, considers whether to send more troops to Afghanistan in a war that is entering its ninth year, the commander who issued that urgent request for reinforcements is now at the centre of a debate inside Washington whose outcome may well determine the course of both tthe war and the Obama presidency. "Gen Stanley A McChrystal's troop request, which was submitted to the Pentagon on Friday, has reignited a longstanding debate within the military about the virtues of the counterinsurgency strategy popularised by Gen David H Petraeus in Iraq and now embraced by Gen McChrystal, the top American and Nato commander in Afghanistan," The New York Times reported. "Gen McChrystal is expected to ask for as many as 40,000 additional troops for the eight-year-old war, a number that has generated concern among top officers such as Gen George Casey,, the army chief of staff, who worry about the capacity to provide more soldiers at a time of stress on the force, officials said. "The competing advice and concerns fuel a pivotal struggle to shape the president's thinking about a war that he inherited but may come to define his tenure. Among the most important outside voices has been that of the former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, a retired four-star army general, who visited Mr Obama in the Oval Office this month and expressed scepticism that more troops would guarantee success. According to people briefed on the discussion, Mr Powell reminded the president of his longstanding view that military missions should be clearly defined. "Mr Powell is one of the three people outside the administration, along with Senator John Kerry and Senator Jack Reed, considered by White House aides to be most influential in this current debate. All have expressed varying degrees of doubt about the wisdom of sending more forces to Afghanistan." In an interview with CBS News Gen McChrystal was asked how many times he has spoken with Mr Obama since taking up his command. "I've talked to the president since I've been here once on a [video teleconference]," he said. "You talked to him once in 70 days?" CBS's David Martin asked. "That's correct," Gen McChrystal said. A profile of the commander in Newsweek said: "McChrystal is so sincere, well informed, and impassioned that he will make a good case for getting more troops if and when he is ever summoned to Washington. But he has a natural bias toward assertive action, not retreat. What if Obama says no to more troops, or does not approve enough troops? 'I'll do the best I can,' McChrystal says. 'He's not the type to resign to make some kind of political statement,' says his friend Gen Kearney." Evan Thomas wrote: "McChrystal, 55, is a purebred warrior, the son of a two-star general, West Point class of '76, a former commander of the elite Rangers Regiment, and, from 2003 to 2008, the head of hunter-killer black ops in Special Operations. He eats one meal a day, works out obsessively every morning at 5, and is so free of body fat that he looks gaunt. Lately, as commander of the war in Afghanistan, he has become a kind of Zen warrior, preaching that often 'the shot you don't fire is more important than the one you do.' He is a student of what he calls 'counterinsurgency math'. If you encounter 10 Taliban members and kill two, he says, you don't have eight remaining enemies. You have more like 20: the friends and relatives of the two you killed. "McChrystal reinforces his sermon early every morning in a dreary, windowless bunker at a meeting called the CUA (pronounced koo-ah), for commander's update assessment. He sits in the back row of five tiers of computer modules, facing giant video screens streaming with data and statistics. One day last week, when a briefer informed him that two Taliban had been killed the day before by soldiers using a multiple-rocket launcher, McChrystal dryly noted, 'That's an awful lot of firepower to kill two people.' He used gentle humour to chide an officer who presented a convoluted diagram full of boxes and arrows to illustrate counterinsurgency in Kandahar. 'The day we can explain that, we've won,' the general observed. "McChrystal has a disarming, low-key style, free of the bombast and sense of entitlement that can come with four stars. He is polite and gracious, if direct, and he can be funny. At the end of the CUA, an officer brought up the spate of articles appearing in the American press suggesting that McChrystal's request for more troops in Afghanistan was being seriously questioned by policymakers in Washington, including President Obama. McChrystal had sent his chiefs in the Pentagon a secret assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, which he described as 'deteriorating' and headed for 'failure' unless the Americans sent more troops. The 66-page document had been leaked to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, setting off a buzz of critical stories in the media. Hawks seized on the report to argue that Obama was going all wobbly, while critics of the war suggested the military was dragging him toward another Vietnam. The controversy caused evident anxiety among McChrystal's commanders at the morning briefing. The officer asked if Gen McChrystal was feeling the pressure. 'I am,' McChrystal allowed, and deadpanned, 'Money would make me feel better.' There were a few laughs as his legal adviser, Col Rich Gross, gave the general a dollar, but the joke fell a little flat. McChrystal's people want to believe in him, and they want to believe in their mission; they do not want to see McChrystal's judgment questioned - and certainly not his integrity... "The general is trying to put the best face on the stories of dissent bubbling up in Washington. 'The debate is healthy. The worst thing would be no debate,' he says. He is aware that there is a move on, reportedly emanating from the office of vice president Joe Biden, to give up on nation-building in Afghanistan and just go after the terrorists in their lairs. Or, maybe just trying to bring security to Kabul and a few provinces, and leave the rest to the Taliban. With some effort, McChrystal tries to be open-minded about his critics. 'Maybe they're right,' he says. "But it's obvious he thinks they're wrong. He uses the analogy of a burning building: 'You can't hope to contain the fire by letting just half the building burn.' His chief of intelligence, Gen Mike Flynn, says flatly, 'Civil war would immediately break out. You'd have a failed state, like Somalia, only much harder to get to.' "

pwoodward@thenational.ae