Wednesday, May 13, 2009

McChrystal Clear?

Trying to figure out what any decision-maker will do before they start their new job is always a challenge, but ruthless speculation is hardly rare in the blogosphere. So, what are implications of choice of the new commander of the forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal?

First, he has been a Special Operator for much of his career, and ran Joint Special Ops Command. The stories thus far about his role are a mix--that he pushed his forces to seek out and kill the insurgent leadership, which I actually have little problem with in the abstract, but he also spent much time in theatre with an overly detailed knowledge of the actions. So, does he micromanage or is he just really smart and keen to have a good understanding of the battlespace?
The biggest concern from this experience is that much of the collateral damage in Afghanistan is caused by air strikes, particularly those called in to support Special Ops. In my conversations with Canadians and others who have worked in Afghanistan, it seems quite clear that the Special Ops side of the war has frequently undermined the rest of the counter-insurgency. On the other hand, Captain Counterinsurgency--Gen. Petraeus--seems to like the guy.

Second, his current posting is as Director of the Joint Staff [DJS]. This position puts the General at a key node between the Joint Staff and the Chairman of the Joint Staff, receiving the politico-military advice from all the various segments of the Joint Staff, including the one I inhabited seven years ago. And this position also requires a fair amount of interaction with the rest of the National Security bureaucracy. So, McChrystal probably has a better grasp of the interactions between military and civilian aspects of counter-insurgency and the larger diplomatic puzzle than most.
On the other hand, two past DJSs, John Abizaid and George Casey, did not do too well in Iraq. Clearly, they inherited a bad situation and had to deal with a Secretary of Defense (Rumsfeld) who inhibited any significant reforms. Still, Abizaid was Tommy Franks's deputy in 2003 and should have insisted on a realistic plan for the post-invasion situation. Again, because Franks slavishly followed Rumsfeld and ignored his subordinates, there was probably little that Abizaid could do, other than resign in protest.

The third bit of knowledge emerging is that McChrystal had a fellowship on the Council of Foreign Relations--the same kind that put me in the Pentagon. The idea is to give policy-makers a year to interact with thinkers and put scholars and others into a policy-making position to learn how it is done. So, McChrystal might have a broader imagination about the possibilities and may be more open to the thoughts of others. I think I am better scholar for that experience, but, then again, Condi Rice had the same fellowship and served in the Joint Staff in her day.
Indeed, one of the key lessons I learned during my year that personalities matter more than political scientists usually assert.

So, we really have no clue as to how this new guy is going to work out. It does show that SecDef Gates is setting the stage, and is not thinking in the short term. It does indicate that there is a better effort to build a team than in the past, where Rummy seemed to pick people who were good at taking orders (the passages in the Woodward books about choosing the Chairman of the Joint Staff were disturbing in the extreme).

So much for speculation.

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