2009 October


In Defense of McChrystal (Updated)

by Tim Sullivan

As the administration begins to push back in earnest against Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan–and as American commentators and members of the mainstream media similarly begin brandishing their knives–it’s worth taking note of one recent vote of confidence the commander received from an unlikely source across the pond: In a piece yesterday for the Times of London, Andrew Sullivan argued that Gen. McChrystal’s “candour and good humour” in his recent remarks at IISS were “the latest indication that he is the right man for the job. If only Bush had allowed his generals this much leeway and this much transparency.” McChrystal’s “speeches and comments last week in London seem to me to speak very highly of him,” Sullivan went on, “just as his bluntness in public and private suggest a man serious about winning this war.”

Though Sullivan ultimately went on to disagree with elements of McChrystal’s analysis, he left little doubt that the general’s role in the policy debate thus far (that is, explaining further the details of the assessment he had been ordered to generate in accordance with the administration’s March “AfPak” policy) had been a healthy one. If only Sullivan’s American counterparts could be so reasonable.


In Tuesday’s Washington Post, Walter Pincus parses McChrystal’s IISS speech, revealing that the general stayed well within his lane:

“I’m certainly not going to circumvent any political leadership, because at the end of the day the political leadership are the people who I work for, and I’m proud to do that,” McChrystal told the International Institute for Strategic Studies last Thursday. Once a decision on troop levels is made, he said, he will carry it out.

Acknowledging that the White House and others are reexamining “our goals and objectives” in the Afghanistan war, McChrystal called the process “a very detailed policy-level debate” that is “incredibly important and incredibly healthy.”

Also in the Post, Michael O’Hanlon argues that, in responding to a question about the possibility of transitioning to an off-shore counterterrorism strategy at some point down the road, “the general critiqued an option that is at direct odds with Obama’s policy and conflicts with the experiences of the U.S. military this decade. That is not fundamentally out of line for a commander.”

O’Hanlon raises a critical, though increasingly ignored, point: the administration has yet to articulate an alternative strategy for Afghanistan–one focused on counterterrorist strikes or otherwise; thus, until the president makes a decision about whether and how to change the current course, the “AfPak” policy as outlined in March still stands–it’s the strategy our troops are carrying out each day on the ground, it provided the policy guidelines within which Gen. McChrystal crafted his assessment, and it was the touchstone for his remarks in London.


Maybe It’s Just Me

by Tom Donnelly

The last 18 hours–that is, President Obama’s airborne pow-wow with Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the stone-wall rejection of the president’s bid to win the Olympics for Chicago–leave my head spinning.  It’s such a weird sequence of events, such an anomalous combination of the deadly serious with the impossibly trivial, that it makes my brain hurt.

Whether he wants to be or not, Barack Obama is a wartime commander-in-chief.  The war in Afghanistan, and even the “Long War” aren’t epic conflicts on a World War II-scale, but they’re damned serious fights involving vital American strategic interests.  Maybe we armchair students of American supreme command see things too much through the Roosevelt-and-Eisenhower, Lincoln-and-Grant lenses, but these are still critical moments.  They seem even moreso thanks to the president’s very public uncertainty about what course to take, and the reports that he’s had so little communication with Gen. McChrystal since he was dispatched to Kabul.

Continue Reading ››


What’s Really at Stake

by Tim Sullivan

Gen. McChrystal’s remarks at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies are well worth a read. After laying out in stark terms the number and complexity of the challenges we face in Afghanistan, McChrystal concluded with a point which is becoming increasingly overlooked in the heated debate about the way forward in Afghanistan: what’s at stake for the region. “An unstable Afghanistan not only negatively affects what happens within its borders but also affects its neighbors,” McChrystal explained; “Afghanistan is, in many ways, one of the keys to stability in south Asia.” Later he added: “a strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a short-sighted strategy,” rightly suggesting that, despite American leaders’ eagerness to wash their hands of the mess in Afghanistan, the region–strategically vital yet persistently unstable as it is–will continue to demand our attention.

Similarly, Dan Twining of the German Marshall Fund recently offered a thorough look at the regional and systemic implications of the potential U.S. courses of action currently under debate:

“All of Pakistan’s pathologies–from terrorist sanctuary in ungoverned spaces, to radicalized public opinion that creates an enabling environment for violent extremism, to lack of economic opportunity that incentivizes militancy, to the (in)security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, to the military’s oversized role in political life in ways that stunt the development of civilian institutions–all of this will intensify should Afghanistan succumb to the Taliban as the West withdraws. These dynamics, in turn, will destabilize India in ways that could torpedo the country’s rise to world power–and the strategic dividends America would reap from India’s success.”


Saving C-17

by Tom Donnelly


Earlier this week, Mackenzie Eaglen of the Heritage Foundation had an excellent summary of recommendations and guide to the deliberations on this year’s defense spending bill.  The House and Senate have singly passed their versions of the law, and the conference is the best opportunity to restore needed systems that in the past have survived through the wartime supplemental funding and now are on the Obama’s Administration’s hit list.

Topping the list is the C-17 cargo aircraft.  Although the need for additional airlift and in particular more C-17s is a requirement that stretches back to the first Bush term, the Congress has been the only institution to take it seriously.  Then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney wanted to end the program.  The Air Force has run a series of “mobility requirements studies”–as required by law–that miraculously produced a result in support of whatever the service budget of the time called for.  Mostly those budgets were built to protect Air Force fighter programs.  Now the service can’t even be bothered to pretend to define a requirement, despite the fact that the pace and demands of deploying and sustaining forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have risen so dramatically and lasted so long.  This is especially true of Afghanistan, where the C-17s combination of payload, range and short-field landing capability make it essential to running a dispersed campaign in an austere environment.  Any surge of forces in Afghanistan would raise that demand–and accelerate the premature aging of the C-17 fleet.

Continue Reading ››


Anticipating the Enemy’s Vote

by Tim Sullivan

Hot on the heels of their Afghanistan troop-to-task report, Fred and Kim Kagan have released a “red team” study outlining the probable enemy reactions to the potential U.S. strategic and operational shifts currently being debated for Afghanistan. In it, they address a number of essential questions: “What will Afghanistan and the region look like as the US and NATO withdraw forces and prepare to pursue a pure counter‐terrorism strategy? How will the various enemy groups and Pakistan likely react to a reinforced counterinsurgency strategy? What would emphasizing only the training of Afghan security forces look like?”

Download the report HERE.


Paradigm Shifts and Warfighting Lag

by Michael Auslin

In his 1959 work, Strategy in the Missile Age, nuclear theorist Bernard Brodie looked back at World War I as the likeliest parallel to his atomic era for how technological change obviated cherished strategic, operational, and tactical approaches to warfighting.  While presaged by the American Civil War and the Russo-Japanese War, the Great War saw the apotheosis of mechanized fighting and the deadly employment of machine guns, armor, aerial attack, gas weapons, and massed artillery.  What lagged behind was the human equation, with leading generals unable to adapt tactics and operations as quickly as new warfighting technologies made them horrifically costly.

Brodie writes that World War I

“completely baffled the military leaders who had to fight it.  They were not incompetent men, but they had been reared under a regime of maxims and precepts which bore no relation to the situation in which they found themselves.  Their ability to make reasonable deductions from the events in which they were caught up seemed to be paralyzed by the very magnitude of those events.”

Brodie, of course, was comparing such inability to grasp new realities with the paradigm shift in military thinking brought about by nuclear weapons, and was preparing the ground to argue that planning for limited nuclear war should be adopted by the nation’s military strategists.

Today, Brodie’s observations on paradigm shifts and warfighting lag are once again valuable. Continue Reading ››