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June 22, 2010

A Couple Reasons Why McChrystal Should Stay, Sort Of
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Michael Cohen's four reasons sound to me more like arguments for why McChrystal deserves to go, rather than why he should go. Yes, he crossed the line. Yes, there's some insubordination going on here. But is the goal here to clarify civil-military relations and set an example or do what's best for our Afghanistan strategy? Its merits aside, if we're going to stick with the current COIN strategy - and it's unlikely that we're going to suddenly reverse course - then it seems like firing McChrystal would undermine that strategy in a serious way. Matt Yglesias writes that "the military can easily continue to pursue a McChrystal-style strategy on both the Afghan and US media fronts under different leadership." But I'm not sure this is the case.

McChrystal has consistently advocated, articulated, and otherwise been the primary spokesman and intellectual proponent for a certain set of bold, somewhat unusual ideas regarding population-centric COIN. Repudiating McChrystal would effectively be a repudiation of those ideas. If anything comes through in the Rolling Stone article, it's that. That's what worries me here. Our policy toward a good chunk of the Muslim world has been so consistently immoral for so long that it's incredibly refreshing to see a military commander passionately advocating, in the face of considerable resistance, an approach that seems almost oddly (for an army) concerned with doing the right thing, even when that right thing appears to come at a price. This paragraph from the Rolling Stone article captures it quite well: 

Despite the tragedies and miscues, McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It's "insurgent math," as he calls it – for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. He has ordered convoys to curtail their reckless driving, put restrictions on the use of air power and severely limited night raids. He regularly apologizes to Hamid Karzai when civilians are killed, and berates commanders responsible for civilian deaths. "For a while," says one U.S. official, "the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan was in front of McChrystal after a 'civ cas' incident." The ISAF command has even discussed ways to make not killing into something you can win an award for: There's talk of creating a new medal for "courageous restraint," a buzzword that's unlikely to gain much traction in the gung-ho culture of the U.S. military.

Really? A medal for "courageous restraint." It sounds sort of absurd, but in a really good way. If we're going to fight a war, we should probably fight it under someone who's sensitive to the loss of innocent life. Not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it also has the added benefit of making sense. It's difficult (for me at least) to envision "winning" a war in which we start killing a lot more Afghans. That would be a recruiting paradise for the Taliban, would further undermine whatever legitimacy the American presence still has among Afghans, and make it more difficult to peel off Taliban to our side. And as McChrystal has said, you kill one civilian, you create 10 new enemies. 

Now, it's fair to make the argument that, despite what McChrystal says, we're killing a lot of civilians anyway. But what troubles me is when critics of the war, particularly progressives, come very close to suggesting McChrystal should let the military loose and ride up the body count. As Andrew Exum writes, "In a weird way, Hastings is making the argument to readers of Rolling Stone (Rolling Stone!) that counterinsurgency sucks because it doesn't allow our soldiers to kill enough people." Counterinsurgency might suck, but it doesn't suck because of that.

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Comments

I tend to be more moderate than Michael on these questions, though I tend in his direction. But on this one, I think you're not getting him right. He clearly makes the mission-related argument for removal: under "Unfathomable Stupidity" and "COIN Blinders." Neither stupidity nor blinders of any kind (even COIN Blinders in a counterinsurgency) are traits that tend to promote success in military command. if Obama wants his Afghanistan mission to succeed, i think Cohen makes a decent (though not overwhelming) case that McChrystal should be removed. Beyond that are the reasons of principle.

This is one of the best posts that I’ve ever seen; you may include some more ideas in the same theme. I’m still waiting for some interesting thoughts from your side in your next post.
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Now, it's fair to make the argument that, despite what McChrystal says, we're killing a lot of civilians anyway. But what troubles me is when critics of the war, particularly progressives, come very close to suggesting McChrystal should let the military loose and ride up the body count. As Andrew Exum writes, "In a weird way, Hastings is making the argument to readers of Rolling Stone (Rolling Stone!) that counterinsurgency sucks because it doesn't allow our soldiers to kill enough people." Counterinsurgency might suck, but it doesn't suck because of that.
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