The dramatic sacking of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, whose reputation among Western commanders, diplomats and politicians had reached Homeric proportions, has left observers wondering whether the cause was his insolence as evident from the article in the Rolling Stone magazine or him locking horns with the Obama administration on Afghanistan. Obama in his address immediately after relieving McChrystal of his duties said that it was not a matter of policy which would continue undisturbed under Mc- Chrystal’s successor David Petraeus, who was the architect of the war strategies that were being implemented by McChrystal, but that it was a ‘personnel’ issue.
Petraeus who was the former Commander of the Afghan forces and a highly successful commander in Iraq, has reduced the violence there considerably and would prevent a void in the US command in Afghanistan being created even though many Afghan leaders have said that his absence would be a blow in the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
McChrystal had changed the US war strategy from one of direct confrontation to ‘constructive engagement’ of Afghan civilians. He engaged in personal discussions with even Afghan tribal leaders and had even addressed the people on Afghan TV. He had apologised for civilian killings and implemented the policy of ‘courageous restraint’ under which soldiers could fire back only if they could clearly identify those who fired at them. This clearly exposed the US and soldiers of NATO to grave dangers and was an unpopular order among the fighting men but not the Afghans.
Commentators have been quick to point out that the sacking of generals by US presidents – the commanders-in-chief of the armed forces – is an American tradition. Abraham Lincoln kept firing many generals in the American Civil War ‘till he found a capable general’ while 60 years ago President Harry Truman sacked the legendary Gen. Douglas McArthur during the Korean War because he wanted to invade China and some say even ‘nuke’ China and North Korea.
President Obama, a liberal has during his tenure in office, come to be identified as a ’weak president’, the latest being his soft attitude towards British Petroleum responsible for leaking of millions of gallons of oil from its oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. The Rolling Stone article which had been written by Michael Hastings (based on the observations made for days as he travelled with the Gen McChrystal entourage) is highly critical of the Obama administration, particularly Obama’s advisors overseeing the conduct of the Afghan war. The writer concluded that Obama lost control of Afghan policy about a year ago.
Obama cannot be faulted. He has not held back on the general’s demands. It is pointed out that last year when McChrystal wanted 40,000 extra troops to defeat the Taliban, Obama gave him 51,000 troops.
Successes Not Evident
The successes of McChrystal’s campaign against the Taliban under his new strategy have not been as expected. The first big operation was this spring to take over and develop the poppy growing district of Margi in the Helmand province. The Taliban had retreated at first but are now back killing and threatening farms. The general himself is reported to have confessed that it is a ‘bleeding ulcer’. In June, American, British, Afghan and Canadian forces were supposed to launch a major operation to ‘restore order and government’ in Kandahar. The success or failure of the Kandahar operation was to have been a test of the strategies of Gen McChrystal. But in this region, President Hamid Karzai’s half brother is said to call the shots and reports say that it is not certain whether the Kandahar operations will take off soon.
A constriction in the chain of command identified in the Rolling Stone article has been the arrogance shown by McChrystal’s Special Forces staff in his headquarters to senior diplomats who crossed their paths. Last week, a senior British negotiator had quit because he had expressed the opinion that McChrystal’s plans would not work.
Political analysts have noted that McChrystal lacks the political savvy required for the job. On the other hand, Petraeus has been able to successfully deal with congress and politicians that matter. McChrystal’s Special Forces in his headquarters, too have been singled out for criticism in being pointed out that despite the orders to show special restraints in dealing with Afghan civilians, these forces have been doing much shooting and accused of ghastly killings around Kandahar.
Obama with this move made against the Afghan forces commander, it is said, has sent a message to the American generals that they have to explain themselves better to him and the American public and not intimidate the White House staff with pretences that they knew better than those who knew little of the subject.
This is an instance of the American tradition of civilian control of the armed forces being made explicitly clear. The political future of Obama hangs on the outcome of the success or failure of American and other NATO troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama has to pull out American forces within two to three years from these countries after making the local forces competent enough to maintain security in their countries. This is indeed a tough call, particularly in Afghanistan.