That certainly has been the case for General Stanley McChrystal the last week. Having served for about a year as the head of the NATO led operations in Afghanistan -- a task which he carried out with much distinction -- he found himself at the gathering end of a freak 'article' in the Rolling Stone magazine, which was somehow made up to be his declaration of open defiance of the civilian leadership. President Obama duly bowed to the pressure of the chatterati, and fired the general to reassert "civilian supremacy over the armed forces". He thus hoped to make his prowess of "decisiveness" known to the public.
Except that it was only a display of decisiveness in playing to the gallery. Perhaps the President didn't bother to ask himself -- What are the criteria to qualify a general for his position, and whether writing magazine articles that sing high praises of the civilian talking heads is one of them? Should the continuance or otherwise of a captain be decided by whether he can rally his men around, and deliver the goods, or by whether he can show his selectors in good light in every interview he gives?
The President paid no heed to the cries from everyone who's on the ground, who clamored for McChrystal's continuance. And that included fellow NATO commanders of all hues and the Afghan President Karzai himself. In a situation where the NATO troop presence is severely detested by the Afghan populace, Gen. McChrystal showed remarkable sensitivity to the sufferings and losses of the Afghan civilians, even at the cost of making himself unpopular with his own troops. That Karzai in fact argued for McChrystal, showed how well the general has been walking this difficult tightrope.
It'd have been easy for Karzai to heap the blame of any civilian casualties on the NATO leader, castigate him at every opportunity, and shore up his own popularity among the Afghans by claiming the high, people's-leader ground. As it'd have been easy for McChrystal to allow his troops to shoot at will anyone under suspicion. That would have looked like minimizing his own casualties, and won him greater plaudits among the American masses, who are reeling from their own losses. Sure, that would have botched up the situation further, but it would hardly look so, from a political correctness point of view. After all, it's common perception among American masses that there is nothing to be gained out of the expensive and bleeding misadventure. And the soldiers themselves would like nothing better than being ordered by the civilian masters to pack up and return home. Contributing to the failure of the mission while looking perfectly unimpeachable would have been easy for the general. Just follow what the political masters say to the letter, and let them be the one to dig themselves into a hole.
But that's not what the general did. Instead, he made it a point to keep meeting Afghan leaders and commoners, hearing out their grievances and apologizing for any excesses that happened. He also articulated a stricter code of conduct for operations in civilian areas, for being respectful towards the local residents, and to cap nighttime raids which were thoroughly resented by the people. Karzai's brother often invited him to explain policy in Afghan bodies. And the general also did have to explain his policies to his own troops which didn't quite understand why the general wants to endanger their own lives by advocating restraint. He faced allegations for not caring about his own men's lives. To which the general responded by going out on combat missions himself with his men. Even before Afghanistan, he had headed Special Ops in Iraq where he himself had been on the ground on many a mission to eliminate terrorist insurgents -- quite unusual for a commander of his rank. He wasn't quite used to being an armchair policymaker and talking head. And that indeed proved to be his undoing in the end. For it left him blindsided and vulnerable to media gaffes. He didn't learn the first principle of career growth -- what matters is what you say, not what you do.
For all his merits, General McChrystal proved to be a poor career manager. He should have taken a few lessons from his erstwhile commander Karl Eikenberry, who also served in Afghanistan a few years back. He got himself promoted very well, dons his military outfit no more, proved himself capable of "higher responsibilities", and is now serving as Ambassador to Afghanistan. He's safely out of the dangerous activities now, and concentrates more on writing performance appraisals of the likes of General McChrystal, expressing disapproval of his methods in secret missives to the government (which are also sometimes leaked very auspiciously). It's another matter that he's not even on talking terms with Karzai and others in the Afghan government, who simply loathe him. He makes a better career out of spreading the message of freedom and democracy among the Afghans, as desired by his bosses, and declaring that Karzai is not quite a suitable ally for the United States. As an Ambassador he has taken upon himself to educate the Afghans on how to elect a leader who can be a better and more reliable ally for the United States. A better ally would free up the NATO forces and allow them to return home, presumably furnishing Eikenberry his next round of promotion, once accomplished. One hears that Eikenberry was dissatisfied at not being made the Viceroy to Afghanistan, instead of merely the American Ambassador, a post which would have given him the political overseer capacity for the entire NATO presence. Eikenberry need not be disheartened. If he writes his magazine articles well, and makes sure that his stones don't roll too much, he'll pretty soon be rewarded.
And what did McChrystal do? Whoa, he asked for thirty thousand additional troops. Troops whom he wanted to indulge not in lethal ops (and deliver a quick victory!), but to act as security forces in policing the Afghan provinces. His counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, formulated with General Petraeus himself, another four-star general who now replaces him, instead calls for a prolonged engagement, where the military does not just do combat duty, but also "lights up the lamps" by building infrastructure, overseeing electricity and water supply, and helping to raise the Afghan army and paramilitary forces to the size of a couple of hundred thousand each. It's a huge wastage of American taxpayer money, when he cannot even guarantee a victory at the end of it. Nay, by all indications, everybody in America is convinced that they are actually losing the war in Afghanistan. And here is this nasty, arrogant general, who just lives in the barracks, and knows nothing about media-management, diplomatic and political finesse, the economy, or public sentiment and tells the President in unequivocal terms that the Afghan mission is gonna fail if another thirty thousand troops are not sent in. What if not outrageous is this! A man in uniform, who sleeps four hours a day and runs seven miles every morning, and doing nothing but fighting a losing war -- is he the one to tell Joe Biden and John Kerry what military strategy to follow? Are these such trivialities as can be decided in the trenches instead of on the dinner tables and high-powered conferences?
Was McChrystal fired for his incompetence whether in formulating the right strategy or in its execution? President Obama has himself said that the policies are going to continue just the same way. So it's not a question of the COIN (counterinsurgency) strategy that McChrystal advocated. Indeed it was formulated by General Petraeus himself, another distinguished general, who had quite a lot of success with it in Iraq. The generals having fought for years have recognized very well the nature of this beast -- that it's no longer winnable by laser-guided-munition and indiscriminate use of lethal force. As General McChrystal says, for every innocent killed you give birth to ten more enemies. Which compounds the problem ten more times. As ready example, he quotes that the Russians killed a million in Afghanistan, but could do nothing more than leave the place in disgrace.
And if it were a question of his failure to execute the strategy that was approved by the political leadership of Obama, then he should have been thrown out much earlier. But so far there hasn't been a single accusation that the general failed to be a leader of his men. In fact, that a retinue of military commanders are expected to quit in solidarity with General McChrystal shows that he was well-respected and well-loved by his team.
So all he was fired for is the publication of an article by a sneaky journalist, who simply indulged in breach of trust by laying bare what was pretty clearly insider talk, never meant to be on record. Put on record what the political classes say about each other in private, and soon you'll have to dismiss the entire senate. That is, if you agree to discount what the political classes say even on record, on national television -- things which are of a far viler and meaner nature than what General McChrystal and his fellow officers said to each other, oblivious to the dangers of having an alien eavesdropping on them. Lesson for General Petraeus now: next time a third-party is around (or even when not around), make it a point to declare ad-infinitum that it's the vision of the boss that you hold dearest and believe in most (after Christ, if you please).
If somebody wants to say that those utterances by the General amounts to challenging civilian control of the military, then that person must have very poor self-esteem. Indeed, that the General immediately called up every civilian leader who was mentioned, and apologized unconditionally without trying to explain or extenuate things, and offering to resign, shows amply that the General was never in defiance of the principle of civilian control. The singular mistake here is confusing the chair with its occupant, a confusion which the occupant will only be too willing to promote.
Not to suggest that the General was at no fault whatsoever. It's very dangerous to allow access to a reporter to inner circles. He could very well be a spy, and from the enemy camp. That is a serious slip-up. But that some bitching over beer at the end of a frustrating day amounts to defiance of civilian control is nothing but a bagful of hot air. Except that in General McChrystal's case, the storm in the beer-glass was enough to blow him over.
And what really did Obama's "decisiveness" buy? He simply disturbed the already tumultuous situation in Afghanistan over what is essentially a complete non-issue. Now with the flux in the ranks of the commanders, General Petraeus would have it difficult to get the stones (err..ball) rolling again. It'll also improve the morale of the Taliban and lower that of his own men. If you doubt that, check whether any team revels in the discomfiture of the opponent captain or not. If Obama was really in control of the situation, he'd have got a younger leader in place -- someone more capable, and likely to deliver better. That'd show whether he was aware of the talent available within his ranks. Obama showed none of it. He simply had to go back to the old-hand Petraeus! So much for Obama's selection capability! And what indeed is General Petraeus expected to do now -- do the same as McChrystal was doing, with greater political correctness? And what if the day he lands in Afghanistan he gets blown up by a Taliban suicide squad? Will his team be up to the chase two wickets down? Since when has war become a matter of niceties?
If Obama wanted to be really decisive, he should have simply said that my job doesn't allow me the luxury of having the time to read Rolling Stone. I know what's going on in Afghanistan, and General McChrystal and his men are doing sterling service. It's a difficult and stressful job, and every soldier out there deserves our full backing, so that they can concentrate on the job at hand, and that includes soldier McChrystal too. When the general has to be removed, and if he has to be removed, is for me to decide, not the media. Right now he's doing what I asked him to do, and doing it well -- other things don't matter. And he could have called McChrystal aside and told him -- don't let this indiscretion happen again. Thirty minutes of private talk was not needed -- twenty seconds would have been enough.
That would have been decisiveness. That would have shown that he knows where the bull's eye is, and would not let egos deflect his attention. A commander's job is to put his men before himself. McChrystal knew that -- we don't hear him firing his junior officers for insubordination when they question his COIN strategy. He explains at length, and joins them in their work. Obama, sadly, proved himself unaware of the principle.
There are two grounds for dismissal -- incompetence, and lack of integrity. Of which the former deserves a second chance, and the latter none. Neither was present in General McChrystal's case.
And if Obama really wanted a change of guard, and McChrystal was not up to the task, he should have found out who the best man is from lower down the ranks, and given him charge. Like Roosevelt did before the second World-War picking up George Marshall bypassing several other seniors. (And Marshall in turn dug out Dwight Eisenhower.)
Obama's decision is the second blunder of his presidentship. The first was when he ordered fire to be opened on Somali pirates who had captured an American merchant-navalite. They were only pirates that far, who were after ransom money. In getting them killed Obama gave them the motivation to become murderers, next time they captured another American. Needless to say, Obama is in no position to guarantee the security of trader navymen on the vast expanses of the seas.
There is a very thin line between decisiveness and foolhardiness. A good batsman stays indecisive and plays his shot late, having judged well both the nature of the pitch, and the nature of the delivery. Those who play premeditated shots never last long. Let's wait to see how it unfolds, now that change has come also to Afghanistan.