Tuesday, May 12, 2009

McKiernan, McChrystal, and Obama's new war in Afghanistan

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Obama has fired the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, and replaced him with Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

What does it mean? Read Fred Kaplan at Slate.

Essentially, Obama has indicated that the war in Afghanistan will emphasize :

McKiernan's ouster signals a dramatic shift in U.S. strategy for the war in Afghanistan. And it means that the war is now, unequivocally, "Obama's war." The president has decided to set a new course, not merely to muddle through the next six months or so.


An intellectual battle is now raging within the Army between an "old guard" that thinks about war in conventional, force-on-force terms and a "new guard" that focuses more on "asymmetric conflicts" and counterinsurgency.

McKiernan is an excellent general in the old mold. McChrystal, who rose through the ranks as a special-forces officer, is an excellent general in the new mold. He has also worked closely with Gates and Petraeus. (In his press conference, Gates referred to McChrystal's "unique skill set in counterinsurgency.") For the past year, McChrystal has been director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff. More pertinently, for five years before that, he was commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, a highly secretive operation that hunted down and killed key jihadist fighters, including, most sensationally, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.

I'm not sure what to make of the move. The war has certainly been in desperate need of refocus, and perhaps a renewed focus on counterinsurgency objectives will get it back on track, or just on a track. The problem all along has been the utter lack of clarity. Has the war been about defeating the Taliban and hunting down al Qaeda? Has it been about nation-building? Has it been about bringing freedom and democracy to the Afghan people? Has it been about regional stability and security? Or has it been about something murkier, about American hegemony in the region, and perhaps about American access to oil and gas?

This lack of clarity has led many of the war's early supporters, including me, to turn against it -- or, I should say, it is one of the reasons I have turned against it. And while a counter-insurgency war may be no more defensible, and no more worthy of support, than the war without clarity, the war as it has been waged thus far, but at least a focused war, a war with a clearly defined purpose (and perhaps also with clearly defined victory), will allow for an honest and open debate about American objectives and about the possibility for success.

In that sense, Obama's shift from the old (McKiernan) to the new (McChrystal) ought to be welcomed. And yet, turning the war into, effectively, a special forces operation is problematic -- and could backfire. As Kaplan notes, for example, "McChrystal's command [of the Joint Special Operations Command] also provided the personnel for Task Force 6-26, an elite unit of 1,000 special-ops forces that engaged in harsh interrogation of detainees in Camp Nama as far back as 2003." In other words, whether he knew what was going on or not (and how could he not have known?), McChrystal was at the very center of the U.S. torture regime. Now, I am hardly an expert on U.S. special forces, but it does seem to me that there is a certain lawlessless to what they do, a certain extra-legal nature to their activities. While there is much to admire about them, I suppose, and while much of what they do is necessary (if not the torture), one cannot help but worry about turning the war in Afghanistan, with all of its complexity and nuance, over to them. And that, effectively, is that McChrystal's appointment means.

I am tempted, once again, to trust Obama's judgment. Kaplan may be right, after all, that his "whole presidency may rise or fall" on this "dramatic change," and perhaps, just perhaps, Obama really does know what he's doing and is convinced that this refocus will succeed. But I'm not convinced. Not yet.

Greater clarity may be preferable to the "uncertain muddle" that has prevailed so far, but that doesn't mean that the new will be any better than the old.

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