Roughly nine months ago, we witnessed what happens when the commanding officer in a theater of war criticises the decisions coming out of Washington. General Stanley McChrystal made a few public speeches and interviews expressing his doubt about the current state in Afghanistan while laying out his case for additional troops on the ground. The impression that was made was that the Obama administration were dragging their feet. McChrystal was eventually called back to Washington for a face-to-face meeting with the President (the first time they met since he was placed in charge of the Afghanistan operation).
In round 2, the General (and some of his aides) was the subject of an eight-page article titled “The Runaway General” in the latest edition of Rolling Stone magazine. In this article, the General takes on a laundry list of individuals including Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, National Security Advisor Jim Jones, Vice President Joe Biden, and even the President himself. According to the article:
Joe Biden – aides joked that his last name sounded like “bite me”
Karl Eikenberry – McChrystal said he felt betrayed over Eikenberry’s opinions expressed in a leaked internal document
Richard Holbrooke – aide referred to him as a wounded animal, and McChrystal groaned over constant e-mails from Holbrooke
Jim Jones – an aide called him a clown
President Obama – McChrystal said the President was disappointing unprepared during their first meeting
Some of the comments surrounding this article touches on the amount of access Rolling Stone had with the General. Due to a fluke event of nature (the volcanic eruption in Iceland that grounded European flights), Michael Hastings had his two-day interview with the General extended to a month. He followed McChrystal and his aides across Europe to Afghanistan during this period, allowing the aides to grow comfortable with the reporter. At one point while they were in Paris, the reporter and the Generals’ staff were out on the town for the evening. Some of the aides consumed too much alcohol and grew more candid as time went on. Hastings says this is where most of the controversial comments originated.
In my article nine months ago, I asked two questions: Was McChrystal right? Was McChrystal in the right? In this case, as the last, the General was wrong for criticizing the President. While he (and we) might not agree with the decisions coming from Washington when it comes to war, the commanding officer’s role is to enact those orders. Questioning or criticizing the orders in public weakens the chain of command and can put a campaign into complete disarray, which brings us to the biggest question of the day. What will happen to McChrystal?
The General received a pass last year, but it is highly unlikely for that to happen again. Insubordination is taken seriously in the armed forces, and even more so when it comes to the officers. History shows how flag officers have been recalled or reassigned after challenging their civilian leadership. Just look back at the actions of Generals MacArthur, Patton, and Abizaid for example.
The one thing that can save McChrystal’s command is the chain reaction that might occur by recalling, reassigning, or retiring of the General. The aides to the General will need to be replaced, since they are equally at fault for the content in the article. Additionally, Eikenberry would need to be replaced because he has no faith in the current Afghan leadership, and it was his opinions in an internal document that drove a wedge between himself and McCrystal as well as the US and Afghanistan. Removing the official representative of the United States to Afghanistan as well as the commanding officer of US forces (who shares a close relationship with Karzai) would cause a power vacuum on our side. Also, we are currently building up to a large operation in Kandahar, with McChrystal playing a major role in the strategy and coordination of forces and supplies. Replacing him now would delay the operation even more, and the replacement might not have the full vision of what the General was trying to achieve.
Expect the General to submit his resignation tomorrow when he meets with the President. After making formal apologies today, this would be the next step in the process for the General to admit his insubordination. It would be up to the President to accept the resignation, reassign the General, or reprimand him while returning him to his post. In my view, I have a feeling Obama will accept the resignation.