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.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.

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