In a military campaign plagued by miscalculations, President Obama’s sacking of General Stanley McChrystal as head of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan will likely be remembered as one of the most significant. McChrystal could not have won the war. As I’ve said in past posts, Afghanistan was lost as far back as 2005/06; over three years before he took command. Moreover, having picked sides in a festering civil war, the coalition will never co-opt the local populations in the Southern and Eastern Provinces. Still, firing McChrystal was an epic mistake because if any military leader could have achieved an honourable exit from Afghanistan, it was the ‘warrior monk’.
Most generals are politicians hiding in combats. Not Stanley McChrystal. In my view, he’s the only real soldier to have led NATO forces in Afghanistan. The most important quality in any fighting man is self-belief and McChrystal has it by the bucket load. During his tenure in Afghanistan, he demonstrated an unwavering conviction in his ability to set the conditions for an orderly withdrawal. He didn’t get distracted by politics and kept focused on the one thing that truly matters; executing his mission successfully.
McChrystal led by example and he could look anyone in the eye he disagreed with including his Commander-in-Chief. I didn’t agree with all of his decisions but as an ex-special forces soldier, I can say, hand-on-heart that I would have been proud to have served under him. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same of his replacement, General David Petreaus.
I wouldn’t expect the straight-talking that ended McChrystal’s career to ever be an issue for General Petreaus who reportedly harbours Presidential aspirations. Moreover, I have serious reservations about Petreaus’s ability to face up to tough questions about the war in Afghanistan after he fainted during a tense exchange with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month.
Petraeus’s legend grew out of the troop surge and counter-insurgency strategy he orchestrated in Iraq which many credit with turning the war around. I have always been of the opinion that Petreaus’s achievements have been overblown. By the time he implemented his Iraq strategy in 2007, al-Qaeda had suffered a major fall out with Sunni tribal elders and ethnic cleansing had succeeded in physically separating warring Muslim communities throughout the country. Baghdad, the epicentre, had degenerated into a city of walls. In short, the tide had already turned in Iraq before Petreaus unleashed his surge.
So what is the way forward in Afghanistan? Obama made his point. Now it’s time to do what’s best for NATO forces in Afghanistan. McChrystal’s abilities are too valuable to be wasted. I dearly hope he is brought back into the fold under Petreaus, at the very least, as an informal strategic advisor. As I’ve said countless times, whether NATO forces withdraw today or several years from now, the end result will be the same in Afghanistan: all out, bloody civil war. An honourable exit for coalition forces is still something to strive for. But that goal will remain elusive if McChrystal is taken completely out of the picture.