Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 01:14 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 01:14 | SYDNEY

The Stanley McChrystal I know

25 June 2010 14:33

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

The demise of Gen Stanley McChrystal is a personal tragedy for a good soldier, but should have very little effect on the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan.

The definition I favour of what a battlefield general does (as distinct from a political-level general in a nation's capital) is one that I adapted from a document entitled, Future Joint Operating Concept 2007 (apparently not on the web). It is that generals '...skilfully employ military forces to attain strategic goals through the design, organisation, sequencing and direction of campaigns and major operations. Generals ultimately translate strategy into operational and ultimately tactical actions'.

Stan McChrystal was a general who had personally been at war since 9/11. During my year in Iraq, he was the commander of the special forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq. His Iraq task force was led by a colonel who saw it as a personal insult when a coalition general was appointed as chief of operations, through whom he had to operate on a day-to-day basis.

Many special forces officers believe that an SF colonel outranks an officer of a non-special forces background of whatever rank or position. Although they may on occasions be prepared to obey a US general officer from outside the tribe, this did not apply to any coalition officer at all. So within days of taking my position, the colonel sent me an email that defined what he would and would not do, and how he would work around me. In doing so, he managed to insult me personally, Australia and general officers from anywhere.

I did not know Stan McChrystal at this stage because he operated mostly out of the country, but I whipped the email to him. He immediately flew to Iraq and (in the terms of the Rolling Stone article) 'arse kicked' the colonel. He subsequently assisted me to establish a working relationship with the colonel and his successors which, in a few cases, last to this day.

The translation of strategy down to the lowest tactical level is what McChrystal has been doing for many years, and doing it very effectively. He has shown the ability to do it as the Iraq war demanded at the time, with a much greater use of what is euphemistically called 'direct action'. He has since been able to adapt to the different and much less violent environment of Afghanistan, and produce an operational plan that is much more nuanced.

But as the Rolling Stone article illustrates, he apparently still found it difficult to make a full cultural change from a special forces attitude to a generalist attitude, and his staff certainly did not display the respect for others that is expected. A general's personal staff is his private domain, and much is said that should never be reported. Stan's real error was to have let an untrusted journo into the inner sanctum, and perhaps this is his hubris.

Having done that, and particularly if the reports are correct that he personally OKed the pre-published article, Obama had no alternative but to sack him. Had Obama appointed a new general to take over in Afghanistan and needed time to settle in, I would have worried about the issue of time —the Kandahar operation is now backing up against Ramadan, which is backing up against winter. But that should not be a problem with Petraeus taking over.

 In the words of Elliot Cohen in 'Supreme Command', the problem for generals is that, as they employ military forces to attain strategic goals based on political ends, those political ends are often:

...ambiguous, contradictory and uncertain. It is one of the greatest sources of frustration for soldiers that their political masters find it difficult (or what is worse from their point of view, merely inconvenient) to fully elaborate in advance the purpose for which they have invoked military action, or the conditions under which they intend to limit or terminate it. The political purpose of war is not just the 'high' politics of foreign policy, it is just as often ‘low’ domestic politics.

That's reality and that's life. Elliot argues that the most successful civilian wartime leaders in history are those that most tightly controlled their generals. In McChrystal's case, he has been tightly controlled and there will certainly be no recidivism.

Photo by Flickr user The U.S. Army, used under a Creative Commons license.