Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, master of “black ops,” has been done in by Rolling Stone. We will never know what possessed McChrystal to allow a Rolling Stone reporter such unfettered access, except that the general and his entourage were stuck for 10 days in Paris by the volcanic ash cloud and must have been short of drinking buddies.

Now that the general has been sacked for intemperate remarks – mostly by his staff officers – they will no doubt have plenty of time to look up old friends.

The Rolling Stone article actually is a well-researched indictment of the administration’s Afghanistan policy. Leave out the staff officer comments collected mostly in bars, and one finds that the troop surge in Afghanistan is not having the effect of “putting the Taliban on the back foot” and seizing the initiative.

Shortly after returning from Paris, McChrystal had to announce that the much-touted offensive in Kandahar was being postponed until fall. Even then it might not be a conventional offensive – particularly since the Army’s trial run of this approach in Marja is widely seen as failing.

The problem, of course, is that McChrystal (and his boss, Gen. David Petraeus, to whom Obama turned to head up Afghan operations) has advocated a counterinsurgency strategy that provides security to a given area so that locals will be won over to the government and stop cooperating with the Taliban. However, a counterinsurgency strategy depends on being able to put security in place for the long term, along with a functioning local government.

As many of President Karzai’s local officials are unreliable and corrupt, they hold little attraction for the locals. In addition, U.S. forces, even with the surge, are not sufficient to provide the sustainable levels of security needed, and Afghan forces do not appear capable of playing a major role.


Does this feel like a winning strategy? Few on the ground in Afghanistan believe that the United States has the will to make this difficult, costly and long-term approach work – particularly as it depends so much on Karzai. Karzai is simply too erratic to be a credible long-term partner.

To McChrystal’s credit, he is perhaps the one American leader smart enough, tough enough and absolutely committed enough to make this strategy successful. He may be loose-lipped, in a George Patton sort of way, but he is the best man to make this approach work – or to give it its best chance. all accounts, even those in Rolling Stone, he has instilled a level of intensity and commitment to Afghan operations not seen before. He has also been the only senior American leader able to deal effectively with Karzai.

Petraeus is a Washington kind of general – at home with the politics and politicians. McChrystal is the kind of general you want out in the field where things happen and action is required.

I certainly understand why the president was upset. The general’s comments were embarrassing. Imagine calling Vice President Biden “Bite Me” (whatever that means) or Ambassador Richard Holbrooke ” a wounded elephant” or the president “detached and ill at ease with his top generals.” But being indiscreet is different from major policy disagreement – normally the grounds for dismissing a senior officer.

Indeed, McChrystal is one leader who actually “gets” what the White House is trying to do in Afghanistan. The president may have been wise to reflect on this before taking such drastic and precipitate action.

And by the way, to show how news cycles work, all of this action, including McChrystal’s firing, occurred before the Rolling Stone interview actually hit the newsstands. Word of the story leaked and the blogosphere went wild, forcing Rolling Stone to post the story on its website two days before the magazine was available on the newsstands.


If everyone in Washington had taken a few deep breaths and spent a few days over the weekend reflecting on these issues, McChrystal may just have been in for a stern reprimand. Once again, President Obama has felt the need to show how tough and decisive he is. He may end up regretting it.

Of course, his Afghan policy seems destined to fail, so perhaps McChrystal’s firing will simply hasten the inevitable.

And perhaps McChrystal was, consciously or unconsciously, looking for a way to get himself out of what might be a colossal failure. Perhaps he saw the handwriting on the wall. If so, Rolling Stone was just the kind of counter-culture way to fall on his sword. So long, Stan – we’ll miss you.


Ron Bancroft is an independent strategy consultant located in Portland. He can be contacted at:


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