The Real McChrystal Scandal: Are We Losing The War In Afghanistan?

There has obviously been a tremendous amount of controversy surrounding the remarks Gen. Stanley McChrystal made to a Rolling Stone reporter about Barack Obama and other members of his administration. That’s understandable. Even the grunts know that they’re not supposed to publicly trash the Commander-in-Chief and McChrystal & his staff certainly knew it, too. So, to talk smack about the President of the United States to a reporter? Wow, what poor judgment.

But while what everyone is paying attention to are the comments McChrystal and his aides made, what should really be catching people’s attention is that the Rolling Stone article is describing what sounds like a losing effort in Afghanistan.

Now, you may say, “Gee, the Left thinks every war’s a losing effort, so what do you expect?” That’s a fair point — but, the concerns expressed in this article are not new. Conservatives who support the war have been pointing out some of the same problems. In fact, while I’m willing to back Obama on the war in Afghanistan as long as he hangs in there and tries : to : win, I’ve been skeptical about whether he’s doing enough to win for a while.

McChrystal requested as many as :  80,000 troops. Obama gave him 30,000 — and they came along with a timeline which I’ve previously referred to as :  “a huge new element of uncertainty into the war effort that will undoubtedly help Al-Qaeda, get American soldiers killed, and decrease the chances that we will leave Afghanistan victorious.” On top of that, McChrystal has added in perfectly ridiculous rules of engagement that are giving the enemy a break and getting our troops killed.

Those are my concerns. Think about whether they’re valid or not while you read this excerpt from the Rolling Stone piece (This is a lengthy excerpt, but it’s a long piece that’s worth reading in its entirety):

Today, as McChrystal gears up for an offensive in southern Afghanistan, the prospects for any kind of success look bleak. In June, the death toll for U.S. troops passed 1,000, and the number of IEDs has doubled. Spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the fifth-poorest country on earth has failed to win over the civilian population, whose attitude toward U.S. troops ranges from intensely wary to openly hostile. The biggest military operation of the year — a ferocious offensive that began in February to retake the southern town of Marja — continues to drag on, prompting McChrystal himself to refer to it as a “bleeding ulcer.” In June, Afghanistan officially outpaced Vietnam as the longest war in American history — and Obama has quietly begun to back away from the deadline he set for withdrawing U.S. troops in July of next year. The president finds himself stuck in something even more insane than a quagmire: a quagmire he knowingly walked into, even though it’s precisely the kind of gigantic, mind-numbing, multigenerational nation-building project he explicitly said he didn’t want.

Even those who support McChrystal and his strategy of counterinsurgency know that whatever the general manages to accomplish in Afghanistan, it’s going to look more like Vietnam than Desert Storm. “It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win,” says Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, who serves as chief of operations for McChrystal. “This is going to end in an argument.”

…After arriving in Kabul last summer, Team America set about changing the culture of the International Security Assistance Force, as the NATO-led mission is known. (U.S. soldiers had taken to deriding ISAF as short for “I Suck at Fighting” or “In Sandals and Flip-Flops.”)

…In February, the day before the doomed offensive in Marja, McChrystal even drove over to the president’s palace to get him to sign off on what would be the largest military operation of the year. Karzai’s staff, however, insisted that the president was sleeping off a cold and could not be disturbed. After several hours of haggling, McChrystal finally enlisted the aid of Afghanistan’s defense minister, who persuaded Karzai’s people to wake the president from his nap.

This is one of the central flaws with McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy: The need to build a credible government puts us at the mercy of whatever tin-pot leader we’ve backed — a danger that Eikenberry explicitly warned about in his cable. Even Team McChrystal privately acknowledges that Karzai is a less-than-ideal partner. “He’s been locked up in his palace the past year,” laments one of the general’s top advisers. At times, Karzai himself has actively undermined McChrystal’s desire to put him in charge. During a recent visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Karzai met three U.S. soldiers who had been wounded in Uruzgan province. “General,” he called out to McChrystal, “I didn’t even know we were fighting in Uruzgan!”

…Despite the tragedies and miscues, McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It’s “insurgent math,” as he calls it — for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. He has ordered convoys to curtail their reckless driving, put restrictions on the use of air power and severely limited night raids. He regularly apologizes to Hamid Karzai when civilians are killed, and berates commanders responsible for civilian deaths. “For a while,” says one U.S. official, “the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan was in front of McChrystal after a ‘civ cas’ incident.” The ISAF command has even discussed ways to make not killing into something you can win an award for: There’s talk of creating a new medal for “courageous restraint,” a buzzword that’s unlikely to gain much traction in the gung-ho culture of the U.S. military.

But however strategic they may be, McChrystal’s new marching orders have caused an intense backlash among his own troops. Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. “Bottom line?” says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.”

In March, McChrystal traveled to Combat Outpost JFM — a small encampment on the outskirts of Kandahar — to confront such accusations from the troops directly. It was a typically bold move by the general. Only two days earlier, he had received an e-mail from Israel Arroyo, a 25-year-old staff sergeant who asked McChrystal to go on a mission with his unit. “I am writing because it was said you don’t care about the troops and have made it harder to defend ourselves,” Arroyo wrote.

Six weeks later, just before McChrystal returned from Paris, the general received another e-mail from Arroyo. A 23-year-old corporal named Michael Ingram — one of the soldiers McChrystal had gone on patrol with — had been killed by an IED a day earlier. It was the third man the 25-member platoon had lost in a year, and Arroyo was writing to see if the general would attend Ingram’s memorial service. “He started to look up to you,” Arroyo wrote. McChrystal said he would try to make it down to pay his respects as soon as possible.

The night before the general is scheduled to visit Sgt. Arroyo’s platoon for the memorial, I arrive at Combat Outpost JFM to speak with the soldiers he had gone on patrol with. JFM is a small encampment, ringed by high blast walls and guard towers. Almost all of the soldiers here have been on repeated combat tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and have seen some of the worst fighting of both wars. But they are especially angered by Ingram’s death. His commanders had repeatedly requested permission to tear down the house where Ingram was killed, noting that it was often used as a combat position by the Taliban. But due to McChrystal’s new restrictions to avoid upsetting civilians, the request had been denied. “These were abandoned houses,” fumes Staff Sgt. Kennith Hicks. “Nobody was coming back to live in them.”

One soldier shows me the list of new regulations the platoon was given. “Patrol only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourselves with lethal force,” the laminated card reads. For a soldier who has traveled halfway around the world to fight, that’s like telling a cop he should only patrol in areas where he knows he won’t have to make arrests. “Does that make any f*cking sense?” asks Pfc. Jared Pautsch. “We should just drop a f*cking bomb on this place. You sit and ask yourself: What are we doing here?”

The rules handed out here are not what McChrystal intended — they’ve been distorted as they passed through the chain of command — but knowing that does nothing to lessen the anger of troops on the ground. “F*ck, when I came over here and heard that McChrystal was in charge, I thought we would get our f*cking gun on,” says Hicks, who has served three tours of combat. “I get COIN. I get all that. McChrystal comes here, explains it, it makes sense. But then he goes away on his bird, and by the time his directives get passed down to us through Big Army, they’re all f*cked up — either because somebody is trying to cover their ass, or because they just don’t understand it themselves. But we’re f*cking losing this thing.”

McChrystal and his team show up the next day. Underneath a tent, the general has a 45-minute discussion with some two dozen soldiers. The atmosphere is tense. “I ask you what’s going on in your world, and I think it’s important for you all to understand the big picture as well,” McChrystal begins. “How’s the company doing? You guys feeling sorry for yourselves? Anybody? Anybody feel like you’re losing?” McChrystal says.

“Sir, some of the guys here, sir, think we’re losing, sir,” says Hicks.

…uring the question-and-answer period, the frustration boils over. The soldiers complain about not being allowed to use lethal force, about watching insurgents they detain be freed for lack of evidence. They want to be able to fight — like they did in Iraq, like they had in Afghanistan before McChrystal. “We aren’t putting fear into the Taliban,” one soldier says.

“Winning hearts and minds in COIN is a coldblooded thing,” McChrystal says, citing an oft-repeated maxim that you can’t kill your way out of Afghanistan. “The Russians killed 1 million Afghans, and that didn’t work.”

“I’m not saying go out and kill everybody, sir,” the soldier persists. “You say we’ve stopped the momentum of the insurgency. I don’t believe that’s true in this area. The more we pull back, the more we restrain ourselves, the stronger it’s getting.”

“I agree with you,” McChrystal says. “In this area, we’ve not made progress, probably. You have to show strength here, you have to use fire. What I’m telling you is, fire costs you. What do you want to do? You want to wipe the population out here and resettle it?”

A soldier complains that under the rules, any insurgent who doesn’t have a weapon is immediately assumed to be a civilian. “That’s the way this game is,” McChrystal says. “It’s complex. I can’t just decide: It’s shirts and skins, and we’ll kill all the shirts.”

…Back in Afghanistan, less than a month after the White House meeting with Karzai and all the talk of “progress,” McChrystal is hit by the biggest blow to his vision of counterinsurgency. Since last year, the Pentagon had been planning to launch a major military operation this summer in Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city and the Taliban’s original home base. It was supposed to be a decisive turning point in the war — the primary reason for the troop surge that McChrystal wrested from Obama late last year. But on June 10th, acknowledging that the military still needs to lay more groundwork, the general announced that he is postponing the offensive until the fall. Rather than one big battle, like Fallujah or Ramadi, U.S. troops will implement what McChrystal calls a “rising tide of security.” The Afghan police and army will enter Kandahar to attempt to seize control of neighborhoods, while the U.S. pours $90 million of aid into the city to win over the civilian population.

…Whatever the nature of the new plan, the delay underscores the fundamental flaws of counterinsurgency. After nine years of war, the Taliban simply remains too strongly entrenched for the U.S. military to openly attack. The very people that COIN seeks to win over — the Afghan people — do not want us there.

What’s going on in Afghanistan is supposed to be the equivalent of the surge. In other words, it’s the strategy change that’s intended to carry us onward to victory. The problem is that things seem to have been getting worse, not better. In fact, what’s going on in Afghanistan reminds me of Iraq BEFORE the surge began.

Unlike Obama, McChrystal knows what he’s doing and he’s surrounded by other brilliant soldiers who know what they’re doing, but whether they’re smart or not, there are some very valid questions right now about whether what they’re doing is working. A lot of our troops have bled and died to take revenge for 9/11, fight Al-Qaeda, and help free the Afghan people. Obama, : McChrystal, :  or whoever may end up replacing McChrystal, needs : to do whatever it takes to make sure that sacrifice isn’t wasted in a losing effort.

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