WASHINGTON — Despite President Barack Obama’s denial that his decision to fire Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan and replace him with Gen. David Petraeus signified any differences with McChrystal over war strategy, the decision obviously reflects a desire by Obama to find a way out of a deepening policy crisis in Afghanistan.
Although the ostensible reason was indiscreet comments by McChrystal and his aides reported in Rolling Stone, the switch from McChrystal to Petraeus was clearly the result of White House unhappiness with McChrystal’s handling of the war.
It had become evident in recent weeks that McChrystal’s strategy is not working as he had promised, and Congress and the U.S. political elite had already become very uneasy about whether the war was on the wrong track.
In calling on Petraeus, the Obama administration appears to be taking a page from the George W. Bush administration’s late 2006 decision to rescue a war in Iraq which was generally perceived in Washington as having become an embarrassing failure. But both Obama and Petraeus are acutely aware of the differences between the situation in Iraq at that moment and the situation in Afghanistan today.
In taking command in Iraq in 2007, Petraeus was being called upon to implement a dramatically new counterinsurgency strategy based on a major “surge” in U.S. troops.
Obama will certainly be put under pressure by the Republican Party, led by Sen. John McCain, to agree to eliminate the mid-2011 deadline for the beginning of a U.S. withdrawal and perhaps even for yet another troop surge in Afghanistan.
But accounts of Obama administration policymaking on the war last year make it clear that Obama caved into military pressure in 2009 for the troop surge of 2010 only as part of a compromise under which McChrystal and Petraeus agreed to a surge of 18 months duration. It was clearly understood by both civilian and military officials, moreover, that after the surge was completed, the administration would enter into negotiations on a settlement of the war.
Petraeus’s political skills and ability to sell a strategy involving a negotiated settlement offers Obama more flexibility than he has had with McChrystal in command.
Contrary to the generally accepted view that Petraeus mounted a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, his main accomplishment was to make the first formal accommodation with Sunni insurgents.
Petraeus demonstrated in his command in Iraq a willingness to adjust strategic objectives in light of realities he could not control. He had it made it clear to his staff at the outset that they would make one last effort to show progress, but that he would tell Congress that it was time to withdraw if he found that it was not working.
As commander in Iraq, Petraeus chose staff officers who were sceptics and realists rather than true believers, according to accounts from members of his staff in Iraq. When one aide proposed in a memorandum in the first weeks of his command coming to terms with the Shia insurgents led by Moqtada al Sadr, for example, Petraeus did not dismiss the idea.
That willingness to listen to viewpoints that may not support the existing strategy stands in sharp contrast to McChrystal’s command style in Afghanistan. McChrystal has relied heavily on a small circle of friends, mainly from his years as Special Operations Forces (SOF) commander, who have been deeply suspicious of the views of anyone from outside that SOF circle, according to sources who are familiar with the way his inner circle has operated.
In an interview with IPS, one military source who knows McChrystal and his staff described a “very tight” inner circle of about eight people which “does everything together, including getting drunk”.
“McChrystal surrounded himself with yes men,” said another source who has interacted with some of those in the inner circle. “When people have challenged the conventional wisdom, he’s had them booted out,” the source said.
The McChrystal inner circle has been accustomed to the insularity that Special Operations Forces have traditionally had in carrying out their operations, the source added.
The primary example of McChrystal’s rejection of outside expertise that challenged his beliefs cited by the sources is the case of David Kilcullen.
Kilcullen, a retired Australian Army officer, is recognised as one of the most knowledgeable specialists on insurgency and was an adviser to Petraeus in Iraq in 2007-2008. Kilcullen is known for speaking his mind, even if it conflicts with existing policy.
After McChrystal took command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan last year, Kilcullen was slated to become an adviser on his staff. But after some early interactions between Kilcullen, and the McChrystal team, that decision was reversed, the sources said.
Kilcullen’s views on targeted killings as wrongheaded clashed with the assumptions of McChrystal and his inner circle.
McChrystal’s staff was also supposed to create a “red team” of outside specialists on Afghanistan who could provide different perspectives and information, but after the inner circle around McChrystal tightened its control over outside information, the idea was allowed to die, according to one source.
Several members of McChrystal’s inner circle are officers who worked for the general during his five-year stint as head of the Joint Special Operations Command, which carried out targeted raids aimed at killing or capturing insurgent leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 to 2008, the sources say.
Two of the key officers on McChrystal’s staff who were part of his former JSOC inner circle are his intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn and his Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville.
Flynn was McChrystal’s director of intelligence at JSOC from 2004 to 2007 and then his director of intelligence at the Joint Staff in 2008-2008. Mayville also served under McChrystal at JSOC.
McChrystal’s political adviser, retired Army Col. Jacob McFerren, is not a veteran of JSOC. But he is described by one source familiar with McChrystal’s team as one of the general’s old Army “drinking buddies”.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006.