Foreign Policy Blogs

Gen. McChrystal Profile: A Strong Man, A Stronger Challenge?


Dexter Filkins’ ‘Stanley McChrystal’s Long War‘ is an excellent profile of America’s top commander in Afghanistan and clearly showcases the challenges of going ‘all-in’ and ‘getting out’.  McChrystal comes off as vibrant, smart, and worthy General, but the task ahead of him is depicted as seemingly insurmountable. Here are some choice bits…

McChrystal on counterinsurgency:

“The insurgency has to have access to the people,” McChrystal told me. “So we literally want to go in there and squat among the people. We want to make the insurgents come to us. Make them be the aggressors. What I want to do is get on the inside, looking out — instead of being on the outside looking in.”

McChrystal on negotiating with parts of the Taliban:

“Pashtun culture adjudicates disagreements in a way that mitigates blood feuds. The Pashtun people go out of their way not to do things that cause permanent feuds. They have always been willing to change positions, change sides. I don’t think much of the Taliban are ideologically driven; I think they are practically driven. I’m not sure they wouldn’t flip to our side.”

Filkins felt that McChrystal had undervalued the importance of Karzai’s legitimacy:

But increasingly, McChrystal, as well as President Obama and the American people, are being forced to confront the possibility that they will be stuck fighting and dying and paying for a government that is widely viewed as illegitimate.

When I asked McChrystal about this, it was the one issue that he seemed not to have thought through. What if the Afghan people see their own government as illegitimate? How would you fight for something like that?

“Then we are going to have to avoid looking like we are part of the illegitimacy,” the general said. “That is the key thing.”

Filkins does a fair job in showing both sides of the debate facing the Obama administration right now, more troops to fight the Taliban or a more Al Qaeda-focused counterterrorism strategy, but the aspects that stayed with me the most were the words of Afghans in the Taliban controlled south who voiced their concern that the US could not be trusted because there was no telling how long they would be there.  On the other hand, the Taliban weren’t going anywhere.  This factor alone affects nearly all other strategic inputs and outputs.

With just a quick glance at today’s news (Karzai relents and a runoff election against Abdullah is set for early November, Secretary Gates says the war strategy decision will not depend on the election while Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel says it must, Pakistan’s military continues their offensive in South Waziristan, while terrorist attacks continue all over the country, and the US military is growing weary over Obama’s extended time frame for making a final call), one can see that Gen. McChrystal has a lot on his plate.