As soon as Rolling Stone began very aggressively to push advance copies of its latest issue, it was clear that the fate of General Stanley McChrystal hung in the balance. With the President's announcement Wednesday afternoon, it is now official. The officer in charge of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan is to be relieved of his command.
How it happened that one of America's deadliest officers, former commander of black operations for Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), was caught in such an indefensible position is perhaps less important that what the story means for the effort in Afghanistan and for the national security of the United States.
First, we must dispel the assumption, already being voiced by some pundits, that this will have a substantive effect operationally on the how the mission is executed. This is a preposterous observation. McChrystal served under General David Petraeus, and executing a classic "population-centric" counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign designed to empower and build capacity in the organs of Afghan national security. Petraeus was the father of America's latest updated manual for COIN operations, Field Manual 3-24. Both men are both more than familiar with the challenges that have bedeviled our nation-building, counterterrorism and stability operations in Afghanistan.
The removal of McChrystal and replacing him with Petraeus may, in fact, be fortuitous, if only from a "branding" perspective. Today, there is no military officer in the world with greater positive name recognition than Petraeus. Not Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth and Marshal of the Royal Air Force; not King Abdullah II of Jordan, a Major General and commander of his nation's Special Operations forces. No, it is the Princeton PhD with a push-up obsession who is instantly recognized and lionized for having successfully implemented the Bush surge in Iraq.
Subsequently, we must congratulate President Obama for this masterstroke. By giving Petraeus seemingly less responsibility as NATO ISAF and Afghan theater commander -- as opposed to being commander of all operations in the Central Command area -- he has in fact "doubled-down" in what has been labeled Obama's war.
By moving Petraeus from Tampa to Kabul, the president is sending the most powerful message possible to all concerned, be they recalcitrant NATO allies, the Karzai government, or even the Taleban and al Qaeda: quite simply: "America means business. I'm sending my best man." This is all good news. Unfortunately, this does not mean that America will win, or even that we can successfully stabilize the country before our withdrawal in a year's time. For that to be possible, the administration and its brightest officers must accept a very unpalatable truth: the best counterinsurgency doctrine in the world cannot realize that which we have set for ourselves as a goal in Central Asia.
Petraeus' famed guidebook, FM 3-24, is a very cogent compilation of best practices in the Western counterinsurgency doctrine of the 20th century. However, the COIN of the last century is very far from what we are doing in Kabul, in Khandahar, in the FATA. Although a handful of writers have noted the differences, the fact it that the vast machine that is the US Army is not yet prepared to recognize the fact that Afghanistan is not the same at Algeria, as Malaya, as The Philippines.
All that we have come to learn about counterinsurgency in the last 100 years -- winning the hearts and minds of the people, implementing a clear, hold, build approach -- is based upon what we used to call post-colonial policing actions. Our best manuals are therefore built on cases where violence erupted in a territory we cared about, either because it was ours, or because it had been ours, as a colonial dominion. The Western power concerned would then deploy force to restrain the violent actor and re-establish the conditions that existed prior to the outbreak of violence. This is not what America has decided to do either in Iraq or Afghanistan. After September 11th 2001, we deployed our young men and women to effect armed regime change -- not to neutralize one bothersome actor challenging our legitimacy, but to create and empower a whole new political, economic and legal system in two countries deemed to be of immediate import to our nation. Afghanistan has never been a Westphalian national state with a democratically elected government. This is not Algeria, or even Northern Ireland.
The Pentagon, and assorted influential actors in the think-tank and beltway community, must come to terms with the fact that COIN will not suffice in the Afghan (or Iraqi) context. We are, at the very least, looking at COIN-plus; at counterinsurgency and nation-formation combined. Now that McChrystal is gone, we must also jettison the belief that all we need to do is apply COIN Field Manual FM 3-24. If that is the limit of our doctrinal imagination, Summer 2011 will come and go and no level of General officer brand recognition will bring us the closure and security we seek in Afghanistan.
Editor's Note: What should be done has been promised for next week.