General McChrystal’s Curious Reversal


mcchrystalGen­eral Stan­ley McChrys­tal is a genius. Dur­ing the early 2000s, while run­ning the Joint Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand in Iraq and else­where, McChrys­tal inno­vated a unique way of piec­ing together author­i­ties from across the inter­a­gency to give his kill squads an aston­ish­ing level of respon­sive­ness, analy­sis, and lethal­ity — oper­at­ing almost entirely covertly and clan­des­tinely. Yet now he seems to be sour­ing on the idea of the kind of war­fare he innovated.

In an inter­view with For­eign Affairs’ Gideon Rose, posted today in part by Politico’s Dylan Bey­ers, McChrys­tal has some choice things to say about the nature of covert war­fare as it’s evolved under Obama and after his retirement.

[M]any new pres­i­dents are ini­tially enam­ored with the Cen­tral Intel­li­gence Agency, because they are offered a covert fix for a com­plex prob­lem,” McChrys­tal tells For­eign Affairs edi­tor Gideon Rose. “But if you go back in his­tory, I can’t find a covert fix that solved a prob­lem long term. There were some nec­es­sary covert actions, but there’s no “easy but­ton” for some of these problems.”

To under­stand why this is a rever­sal of sorts from his sig­na­ture inno­va­tion in coun­tert­er­ror­ism, con­sider Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jor­dan­ian head of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. As Dex­ter Filkins recounted in his 2009 hagiog­ra­phy of McChrys­tal (then in charge of the war in Afghanistan), McChrys­tal had formed his own task force, in an unprece­dented col­lab­o­ra­tion between the CIA and JSOC, and even­tu­ally built up the intel­li­gence needed to local Zar­qawi and kill him in June of 2006.

Now, Zar­qawi was a major force in the Iraqi insur­gency, and had butchered hun­dreds of inno­cent peo­ple. He was a nasty man and no one is sorry to see him go. But the insur­gency in Iraq was a com­plex prob­lem with its roots in eco­nomic, polit­i­cal, and social issues as much as it was a sim­ple mil­i­tary prob­lem that could be solved through a decap­i­ta­tion strike. And in fact, the explo­sion of the war in Iraq after Zarqawi’s death (it got so bad at the end of 2006 that the Anbar tribes began to turn against al Qaeda, a key moment that led to the even­tual reduc­tion of vio­lence in 2007 dur­ing the Surge) sug­gests that his death was not actu­ally enough on its own to do any­thing to solve the com­plex foun­da­tions of polit­i­cal vio­lence in Iraq. Iraq’s con­tin­u­ing vio­lence to this day shows how com­plex the prob­lem is.

And in fact, in his own post-retirement writ­ing, McChrys­tal has defended and pro­moted his meth­ods for inno­vat­ing covert and clan­des­tine war­fare to go after ter­ror­ists and insur­gents. He even tried to take par­tial credit for the bin Laden raid, say­ing such secret, kinetic oper­a­tions were his innovation.

And all of that is fine. But in a very real way McChrys­tal is argu­ing against a bit of a straw man. This is not the first time he’s expressed his skep­ti­cism of kill mis­sions pub­licly, it is also unde­ni­able that McChrys­tal was a pri­mary inno­va­tor in the very tac­tics he now decries as too sim­ple and not geared toward long-term success.

Why is McChrys­tal doing this? He isn’t wrong in his crit­i­cism. Few really argue that drone strikes and other forms of covert war­fare are meant to actu­ally solve the long term prob­lems of state fail­ure, hol­low states, and roil­ing insur­gen­cies spilling over into regional or even global prob­lems. At best, these meth­ods are meant either to degrade spe­cific orga­ni­za­tions (al Qaeda) or to man­age the prob­lem long enough for the host gov­ern­ment to fig­ure out its own solu­tion (assum­ing the Yemen strat­egy pans out).

But to see the man who bril­liantly reshaped the inter­a­gency bureau­cracy to enable quick, highly-sourced kill mis­sions then, only upon retire­ment, decry them as inef­fec­tive and pos­si­bly coun­ter­pro­duc­tive… well, that’s a bit jar­ring, to say the least. It brings to mind Gen­eral Ricardo Sanchez, the Army Gen­eral who led forces in Iraq in 2003–2004. His tenure there was, to be blunt, a com­plete dis­as­ter, includ­ing his endorse­ment of the tor­ture of detainees at Abu Ghraib. His com­mand was so bad for the troops and for Iraq that he was even­tu­ally forced to retire as a 3-star gen­eral, rather than a 4-star. And in his anger over such a snub, he wrote a mem­oir blast­ing the Bush Admin­is­tra­tion for how badly it mis­han­dled the early occu­pa­tion through L. Paul Bremer.

The thing is, dur­ing his com­mand and the many years after, Sanchez was silent about this sup­posed polit­i­cal med­dling and cat­a­stro­phe. He tried to ride his career as high as he could, and when it stalled out he stomped his feet and blamed oth­ers for what unfolded in Iraq (and tried to par­lay that into a run for the Sen­ate, no less).

McChrys­tal is not doing any­thing as loath­some; his crit­i­cism of drone strikes are not as cyn­i­cally self-serving as Sanchez’s crit­i­cism of the war in Iraq. But the mind­set is the same. McChrys­tal had proven he could shift the inter­a­gency in sur­pris­ing ways when he was on the inside, and he used that to cre­ate a method of war­fare he thought was effec­tive at address­ing a prob­lem. It’s per­fectly okay for him to real­ize now, upon reflec­tion, that it wasn’t a very good way of doing that.

But at the very least, McChrys­tal could account for his own role in cre­at­ing the sys­tem he now rejects. He played a huge role in cre­at­ing the beast; to now com­plain it’s not very use­ful bor­ders on hypocrisy. And of course, he couldn’t pos­si­bly have a bone to pick with Pres­i­dent Obama, either.

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