Despite President Barack Obama's denial that his decision to fire Gen.
Stanley A. McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan and replace him with
Gen. David Petraeus signified any differences with McChrystal over war
strategy, the decision obviously reflects a desire by Obama to find a
way out of a deepening policy crisis in Afghanistan.
Although the ostensible reason was indiscreet comments by McChrystal
and his aides reported in Rolling Stone, the switch from McChrystal to
Petraeus was clearly the result of White House unhappiness with
McChrystal's handling of the war.
It had become evident in
recent weeks that McChrystal's strategy is not working as he had
promised, and Congress and the U.S. political elite had already become
very uneasy about whether the war was on the wrong track.
calling on Petraeus, the Obama administration appears to be taking a
page from the George W. Bush administration's late 2006 decision to
rescue a war in Iraq which was generally perceived in Washington as
having become an embarrassing failure. But both Obama and Petraeus are
acutely aware of the differences between the situation in Iraq at that
moment and the situation in Afghanistan today.
In taking command
in Iraq in 2007, Petraeus was being called upon to implement a
dramatically new counterinsurgency strategy based on a major "surge" in
Obama will certainly be put under pressure by the
Republican Party, led by Sen. John McCain, to agree to eliminate the
mid-2011 deadline for the beginning of a U.S. withdrawal and perhaps
even for yet another troop surge in Afghanistan.
But accounts of
Obama administration policymaking on the war last year make it clear
that Obama caved into military pressure in 2009 for the troop surge of
2010 only as part of a compromise under which McChrystal and Petraeus
agreed to a surge of 18 months duration. It was clearly understood by
both civilian and military officials, moreover, that after the surge
was completed, the administration would enter into negotiations on a
settlement of the war.
Petraeus's political skills and ability
to sell a strategy involving a negotiated settlement offers Obama more
flexibility than he has had with McChrystal in command.
to the generally accepted view that Petraeus mounted a successful
counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, his main accomplishment was to make
the first formal accommodation with Sunni insurgents.
demonstrated in his command in Iraq a willingness to adjust strategic
objectives in light of realities he could not control. He had it made
it clear to his staff at the outset that they would make one last
effort to show progress, but that he would tell Congress that it was
time to withdraw if he found that it was not working.
commander in Iraq, Petraeus chose staff officers who were skeptics and
realists rather than true believers, according to accounts from members
of his staff in Iraq. When one aide proposed in a memorandum in the
first weeks of his command coming to terms with the Shia insurgents led
by Moqtada al Sadr, for example, Petraeus did not dismiss the idea.
willingness to listen to viewpoints that may not support the existing
strategy stands in sharp contrast to McChrystal's command style in
Afghanistan. McChrystal has relied heavily on a small circle of
friends, mainly from his years as Special Operations Forces (SOF)
commander, who have been deeply suspicious of the views of anyone from
outside that SOF circle, according to sources who are familiar with
the way his inner circle has operated.
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In an interview with IPS,
one military source who knows McChrystal and his staff described a
"very tight" inner circle of about eight people which "does everything
together, including getting drunk".
himself with yes men," said another source who has interacted with some
of those in the inner circle. "When people have challenged the
conventional wisdom, he's had them booted out," the source said.
McChrystal inner circle has been accustomed to the insularity that
Special Operations Forces have traditionally had in carrying out their
operations, the source added.
The primary example of McChrystal's
rejection of outside expertise that challenged his beliefs cited by
the sources is the case of David Kilcullen.
Kilcullen, a retired
Australian Army officer, is recognized as one of the most
knowledgeable specialists on insurgency and was an adviser to Petraeus
in Iraq in 2007-2008. Kilcullen is known for speaking his mind, even if
it conflicts with existing policy.
After McChrystal took
command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan last year, Kilcullen was
slated to become an adviser on his staff. But after some early
interactions between Kilcullen, and the McChrystal team, that decision
was reversed, the sources said.
Kilcullen's views on targeted
killings as wrongheaded clashed with the assumptions of McChrystal and
his inner circle.
McChrystal's staff was also supposed to
create a "red team" of outside specialists on Afghanistan who could
provide different perspectives and information, but after the inner
circle around McChrystal tightened its control over outside
information, the idea was allowed to die, according to one source.
members of McChrystal's inner circle are officers who worked for the
general during his five-year stint as head of the Joint Special
Operations Command, which carried out targeted raids aimed at killing
or capturing insurgent leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 to
2008, the sources say.
Two of the key officers on McChrystal's
staff who were part of his former JSOC inner circle are his
intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn and his Deputy Chief of
Staff for Operations, Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville.
McChrystal's director of intelligence at JSOC from 2004 to 2007 and
then his director of intelligence at the Joint Staff in 2008-2008.
Mayville also served under McChrystal at JSOC.
political adviser, retired Army Col. Jacob McFerren, is not a veteran
of JSOC. But he is described by one source familiar with McChrystal's
team as one of the general's old Army "drinking buddies".