Eliot Cohen: Why McChrystal Has to Go





[Mr. Cohen teaches at Johns Hopkins University and is the author of "Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime."]

Gen. Stanley McChrystal is a hero—a selfless, fearless and inspiring soldier. He is also something of a military genius. In Iraq, as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command from 2003-2008, he created an extraordinary military operation.
His command center—a vast open hall resembling the floor of a trading exchange—put long-haired civilian geeks next to wiry commandos, and together they uncovered, analyzed, pooled and acted on information that enabled soldiers to launch successful operations at a moment's notice. They did so in ways that only a few years ago would have required weeks of preparation and rehearsal. He is one of the fathers of victory in Iraq, because his organization dismantled the leadership of al Qaeda there. Few Americans know, or will know, how well he has served this country—and as a shrewd, humane commander, not merely a lethal one.

President Obama should, nonetheless, fire him.

Gen. McChrystal's just-published interview in Rolling Stone magazine is an appalling violation of norms of civilian-military relations. To read it is to wince, repeatedly—at the mockery of the vice president and the president's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, at the sniping directed toward the U.S. ambassador, at a member of his staff who, when asked whom the general was having dinner with in Paris said, "Some French minister. It's so [expletive deleted] gay." The quotes from Gen. McChrystal's underlings bespeak a staff so clueless, swaggering and out of control that a wholesale purge looks to be indicated.

The larger predicament here is not the general's fault. The Obama administration has made three large errors in the running of the Afghan war.

First, it assembled a dysfunctional team composed of Gen. McChrystal, Amb. Karl Eikenberry and Amb. Richard Holbrooke—three able men who as anyone who knew them would predict could not work effectively together. Mr. Eikenberry was a former commander in Afghanistan, junior in rank to and less successful than Gen. McChrystal, and had very differing view of the conflict. Mr. Holbrooke, a bureaucratic force of nature, inserted an additional layer of command into a fraught set of relationships. As a stream of leaks has revealed, the staffs loathe each other.

The second error lies in the excruciating strategy review of last fall. Internal dissension spilled into public, making it clear that Vice President Joe Biden took a very different view of the war than the Defense Department and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The competitive leaking, sniping and bickering that pervaded the review worsened the climate of command and undoubtedly left Gen. McChrystal and his team unnerved.

The third, and fatal, error came in Mr. Obama's West Point speech in December. He put his own ambivalence about the Afghan war on public view and then announced that he would begin a withdrawal in July 2011. This blunder demoralized his own side while elating the enemy and encouraging Afghan friends and neutrals to scramble to make their accommodations while they could.

But none of this excuses the substance or the tone of the words spoken by Gen. McChrystal and his staff. The poor judgment shown in political-military matters calls into question their broader competence to wage an acutely difficult war...


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