The day the general made a misstep
By Mark Perry
President Barack Obama's national address last Tuesday not only detailed the United States' strategy on Afghanistan, it laid bare his new administration's strengths and weaknesses - and confirmed the growing suspicion that, eight years after September 11, 2001, meeting America's global challenges with a military response remains the default position of the Washington policymaking establishment. "Don't underestimate the impact that eight years of the [George W] Bush administration has had in Washington," a senior State Department official explained this last summer. "The Bush people set out the language of the war on terrorism, invented the vocabulary, defined the terms. People talk about the importance of 'doing' diplomacy, but no one really knows what that means or how tough it can really be." At least initially, this assessment seemed contradicted by the administration's flurry of diplomatic activity. Its first months were taken up by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's globetrotting, special envoy George Mitchell's high-profile Jerusalem meetings, AfPak specialist Richard Holbrooke's repeated initiatives with Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari - and Obama's decision to engage Iran in direct talks about its nuclear program. Suddenly, surprisingly, the military seemed relegated to playing a minor role in Washington: Bush's hero David Petraeus, the US commander for the greater Middle East, was no longer in the headlines, the war in Iraq seemed well in hand and Defense Secretary Robert Gates was nowhere to be seen. All of this changed in May, when a series of well-timed Taliban offensives led to a spike in US casualties and Gates decided to replace the US Afghan commander, David McKiernan, with Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal. The change did not come as a surprise to Pentagon officers, who had watched Petraeus and McKiernan struggle through a difficult relationship: "The two couldn't be in the same room together," a McKiernan aide says. "We knew there'd be a fist fight if we left them alone." The disagreement was personal: McKiernan resented answering to an officer whom he had once commanded and viewed as politically ambitious. But the relationship was also scarred by a subtle disagreement over how to meet the Taliban challenge. Both McKiernan and Petraeus agreed that the Taliban posed a security challenge to the Afghan government, but McKiernan focused first on development - on building what he called "human capital". Petraeus disagreed: you can't build "human capital" without security, he argued, and the security situation in the country was deteriorating. Then too, Petraeus thought, what was needed in Afghanistan was an officer who could respond creatively to what Petraeus believed was turning into an asymmetric fight - and McKiernan was an officer with a deep background in running conventional wars. McChrystal, a former Green Beret and a celebrated special operations commander, was the answer. Petraeus recommended a change to Gates, and Gates agreed. Within days of his May 11 appointment, McChrystal showed up in the Afghan capital, Kabul, with a team of counter-insurgency experts who commandeered McKiernan's headquarters and fanned out throughout the country. McChrystal's teams were told to identify the problem and find a solution. "They absolutely flooded the zone," a US development officer says. "There must have been hundreds of them. They were in every province, every village, talking to everyone. There were 10 of them for every one of us." Not surprisingly, within weeks of their deployment, McChrystal's team leaders had concluded that the US was facing was an escalating insurgency that could only be checked with an increase in US troops. In-country State Department officials rolled their eyes: "What a shock. If you deploy a gang squad, they're going to find a gang," a senior State Department official says with a tinge of bitterness. "They were looking for an insurgency and they found one." "From the minute that McChrystal showed up in Kabul, he drove the debate," a White House official confirms. "You'll notice - from May on it was no longer a question of whether we should follow a military strategy or deploy additional troops. It was always, 'should we do 20,000 or 30,000 or 40,000, or even 80,000'? We weren't searching for the right strategy; we were searching for the right number." A senior State Department official, watching McChrystal from her State Department perch in Washington, remembers the frustration among the department's top policymakers: "We kept saying 'we need to open up to the other side, like we did in Iraq with the Anbar insurgency,' and the military kept saying, 'well this isn't Iraq.' And so we'd answer: 'fine, so if Afghanistan isn't Iraq, then why do you keep talking about a surge?' And we never got an answer." The State Department's frustration extended into the embassy in Kabul, where the US ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, was having his own problems with McChrystal. The appointment of Eikenberry in March of 2009 had been greeted with skepticism in the State Department because of his background as a West Pointer, a retired lieutenant general and a US security coordinator in the country. But if anyone would be sympathetic to McChrystal, it was now thought, it would be Eikenberry. But that's not what happened: Eikenberry won friends among professional diplomats for his easygoing manner and quick understanding of their problems - and for his open irritation at McChrystal's imperious manner. "McChrystal came in and he just thought he was some kind of Roman proconsul, a [Douglas] MacArthur," an Eikenberry colleague notes. "He was going to run the whole thing. He didn't need to consult with the State Department or civilians, let alone the ambassador. This was not only the military's show, it was his show." But McChrystal was not only able to "flood the zone" in Afghanistan, he was able to do so in Washington. As the director of the Joint Staff, a position he held just prior to arriving in Kabul, McChrystal established the Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordinating Cell (PACC), a 70-person military-civilian operations group housed in the Pentagon's National Command Center, one of the most secure offices in the world. "This isn't a place you just wander in and out of," a senior Pentagon official says. The "PACC" bypassed the normal command structure - and the State Department. It reported to McChrystal, who rotated its officers in and out of Kabul every three to four months. The PACC is "a stovepipe operation", this senior Pentagon official notes. "It's beautiful. It's headed up by McChrystal acolytes, former special operations officers who view him [McChrystal] as their patron. So they follow his lead. And there is no requirement for them to share any of the information they get from Kabul with the State Department or anyone else - let alone with Eikenberry. This is McChrystal's game. The PACC people in Washington pass information to McChrystal without going through any channels and they take the best information from Kabul and they brief [JCS chairman Admiral Mike] Mullen - and he briefs the president. So during the run-up to the Afghanistan decision, the military always looked current. They had the best information. Everyone else looked like a bunch of amateurs. Eikenberry was out of the loop. He had no chop [influence] on any of it. They just ran circles around him." The tensions in the Eikenberry-McChrystal relationship came to be defined by Eikenberry's growing anger that the State Department's views were not getting an adequate hearing, either in Kabul or in Washington. That is: because the military was the sole voice in determining what was wrong in Afghanistan, they would be the sole voice in determining what to do about it. To deal with the first problem - in Kabul - Eikenberry confronted McChrystal after the general had had one of his private, face-to-face meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "Don't you think I ought to be a part of these meetings?" Eikenberry asked. McChrystal shrugged him off. "I'll keep you informed," he said. Eikenberry was enraged: the American in-country effort was supposed to be a coordinated military-civilian initiative. According to a Pentagon official, the Eikenberry-McChrystal confrontation, which "first took place in July", was repeated again and again. "It got worse and worse." Eikenberry responded to the second problem - in Washington - by belatedly sending a detailed cable to the president laying out his disagreement with McChrystal's plan. The cable, which arrived in early November, urged the president to adopt "a low-end option" of deploying no more than 15,000 US troops as trainers to the Afghan National Army. Eikenberry made it clear: America's problems in Afghanistan weren't going to be solve by killing people, but by helping the Afghans build credible governing institutions. The cable made its way through the upper reaches of the Washington policymaking establishment - the deputies committee, the principles committee and the National Security Council (NSC) - until it reached the president's desk. It was reviewed at the White House on Wednesday, November 9 (with Eikenberry present) as one of four options available to the president. McChrystal was enraged. In mid-August, he and his team had spent weeks with Petraeus and Petraeus' staff in the region preparing to make their case to the president - including six days of intensive meetings in Qatar - for an immediate deployment of 40,000 US troops to Afghanistan to "gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum". The McChrystal recommendation, contained in a 66-page memorandum, became the focus of a series of intensive White House meetings chaired by the NSC director, James Jones, throughout September. The meetings were detailed and exhaustive, what one Central Command (CENTCOM) officer described as "some of the most physically draining sessions I have ever participated in". Now, suddenly, Eikenberry was weighing in. McChrystal felt undercut. "Where had this guy been?" one CENTCOM officer asked. "It was pretty damned late in the day to be giving an opinion. And that's all it was." American diplomats don't disagree, but defend Eikenberry by pointing out that McChrystal's decision to "flood the zone" was designed to take the impetus for handling the war in Afghanistan out of the hands of the State Department as much as it was out of the hands of the Taliban. Other voices and other views, they believed, had been cut out of the loop - and they had decided to strike back. "You can only be treated like a bunch of idiots for so long before you get fed up," one State Department employee says. "It was PowerPoint after PowerPoint, all filled with this lingo and it all sounded pretty scientific. But it all amounted to the same thing - who do we kill. Well, it won't work." State Department officials theorize that Eikenberry might not have weighed in at all had it not been for an inadvertent McChrystal misstep. It was no secret in Washington that Vice President Joe Biden was one of the few officials who questioned McChrystal's call for more troops, but when McChrystal was asked about it he fell on his face. During a speech in London on October 1, McChrystal described Biden's skepticism as "short-sighted" - an embarrassing and bald abrogation of Gates' oft-stated rule that military officers should keep their mouths shut when it comes to disagreeing with elected civilian officials. The result did not change the military equation, but it had a huge psychological impact: "Stan really doesn't quite get Washington," a colleague says, "and he was a little bit embarrassed. He took a huge gulp. Before London he was on transmit, after that he wasn't." Coming nearly on the heels of McChrystal's misstep, the Eikenberry "low-end" option made a huge difference, coalescing opposition to McChrystal's call for a high-end flood of more troops and a full-blown counter-insurgency campaign. "McChrystal's gaffe gave Eikenberry his opening and he took it," a well-placed senate staffer says. Eikenberry's cable exploded like a bomb inside Obama's NSC and reinforced Biden's skepticism over McChrystal's plan and strengthened the voices that believed McChrystal's plan should be ratcheted back and that the US should be provided with an "off ramp" - a way out of the country if the plan didn't work. Eikenberry's meeting with Obama and the NSC team also cast broad doubt on whether what the US faced in Afghanistan was a full-blown insurgency: doubts that persist despite Obama's acceptance of an increase of 30,000 US troops. The voices of doubt have impressive credentials. James Clad, a former Pentagon deputy assistant secretary of defense for South Asia, is one of the prominent doubters. "It's not clear to me that what we're facing in Afghanistan is a counter-insurgency," he says. "In fact, I'm quite sure it's not. It's more likely that it's a Pashtun civil war. Which means we're applying the wrong fix to the wrong kind of problem." Clad finds himself agreeing with Graham Fuller, a former Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Kabul, who last week wrote that "the 'objective' situation in Afghanistan remains a mess. We are not now winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan; indeed, we never can, and certainly not at gunpoint". Fuller continued by saying that "most Pashtuns will never accept a US plan for Afghanistan's future, [while] the non-Pashtuns - Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, etc - naturally welcome any outside support in what is a virtual civil war". Clad sees the president's announcement as an unworkable compromise between contending Washington factions, each of which has a strongly militarized face. "More troops also mean more targets for a terrain-savvy enemy," he says, "and whatever the impending uptick in violence against the Taliban achieves," he says, "we will need to anchor the result in a regional settlement - one that draws Iran, China, Russia and India into a common purpose: to stop primitive Islamist zealots seizing Kabul once again, which is the Pakistani security establishment's preferred 'default' position. By militarizing the response to 9/11," Clad continues, "we took the view that America 'owns' Afghanistan in perpetuity, a foolish unilateral approach that the president's policy seems to endorse." Andrew Bacevich, the dean of America's military thinkers, is even more outspoken. Writing in the Los Angeles Times in the immediate aftermath of the Obama decision, Bacevich likened Obama's decision to Bush's anti-terrorism crusade - a damning comparison. Like Eikenberry - and Clad and Fuller, Bacevich questions whether launching a counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan is wise: "The 'surge' engineered by Army General David H Petraeus in Iraq enables proponents of that war to change the subject and to argue that the counter-insurgency techniques employed in Iraq can produce similar results in Afghanistan," Bacevich writes, "disregarding the fact that the two places bear about as much resemblance to one another as North Dakota does to Southern California." He concludes: "Under the guise of cleaning up Bush's mess, Obama has chosen to continue Bush's policies. No doubt pulling the plug on an ill-advised enterprise involves risk and uncertainty. It also entails acknowledging mistakes. It requires courage. Yet without these things, talk of change will remain so much hot air." Opponents of Obama's Afghanistan strategy argue that eight years after 9/11, America's response to terrorism (or "extremist violence" - to use the current president's stumbling catch phrase) remains chillingly unsophisticated: kill the enemy. While McChrystal's counter-insurgency plan was largely defanged, it was eventually endorsed by a president whose civilian team is short on military experience (neither Obama nor his secretary of state has ever served in uniform) and whose closest advisors - excepting Biden - were slow to question military assumptions. "We were really behind the curve," a senior State Department diplomat admits. Critics of Obama might conclude from his recent West Point speech that the military is in charge of the American government - but don't tell the Pentagon. The military got what it wanted, but it emerged from the three-month Afghanistan review process with a keen sense of its limits and a strong feeling that while it might have succeeded in flooding the zone this time, it won't happen again.
Mark Perry is a military and foreign policy analyst living in Arlington, Virginia. His most recent book is Partners in Command, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace. (Copyright 2009 Mark Perry.)