international analysis and commentary

What the McChrystal affair tells us about the US

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The sacking of Gen. McChrystal is telling not just of the state of the war in Afghanistan, but also of the growing difficulty of governing a US administration so complex that it risks undermining the foundations of its own success. To put this important episode into context, we need to recall the vast expansion of government prerogatives which characterized the Bush years – mostly as a reaction to 9-11. Against such backdrop, the multiple challenges currently faced by President Obama, from the Gulf oil spill to the fallout of the financial crisis, should be seen in relation to the numerous layers of entrenched interests, civil servants, agencies and regulators. Paradoxically, the growing government machinery is making strategic decisions harder to formulate and certainly harder to implement.

The case of Gen. McChrystal thus fits a pattern, and confirms that even when the diagnosis of problems is fundamentally correct, the complexity of the administration may make the solution very difficult to carry out.

When Gen. McChrystal was brought in as a “technical expert” to fix the Afghan problem, his predecessor, Gen. McKiernan, had just been fired as “collateral damage” of his bombing strategy – one that had prompted an outcry in the Afghan government and the international community alike.

Gen. McChrystal immediately curbed the bombings, but made it clear that a new way of fighting, i.e. maximizing the support of the population, required wider support from the Afghan counterparts and deeper coordination among international actors. In short, while raising the profile of his role – to a degree unseen by his predecessors – he also set out better-defined political responsibilities. The August 2009 Strategy Review that his team drafted duly recognized the need for wider coordination, sending the ball, so to speak, back into the President’s court.

Obama’s decision to appoint Gen. Petraeus as new commander on the ground – a demotion, in technical terms, as Gen. Petraeus had been the direct superior to Gen. McChrystal – is actually politically shrewd. The appointment places again the onus onto the armed forces by putting the master of the Iraqi counterinsurgency in charge (on whose doctrine McChrystal had already based his own review). In fact, Gen. Petraeus had so far successfully avoided getting directly entangled in the debate over Afghanistan, leaving Gen. McChrystal in the forefront. That’s no longer possible now as the President seems to be saying out loud: “no more excuses”.

Having said all this, the Petraeus appointment still leaves the central problem of defining the diplomatic context for a successful policy unresolved, as it does not question the accuracy of Gen. McChrystal’s strategy. The problems of coordination remain acute and changing the commander of US and ISAF forces is not, in itself, any guarantee of improvement in that direction.

Without identifying them openly, the Review recognized the risks of military overstretch that had become dramatically clear under the Bush Administration (the Rumsfeld approach), as well as the pitfalls of the centralized political framework imposed on Afghanistan by Amb. Khalilzad since 2001. Rumsfeld’s approach pushed through the flawed concept that “guns would be enough”, with an over-reliance on the military which later turned out to be counterproductive, especially in managing daily relations with the local population. Khalilzad’s approach, on its part, created excessive expectations in the central government while preserving the clout of local warlords, thus making it impossible to establish a viable local administration. Redressing those mistakes – and the coordination problems they created – now requires settling quite a few scores within the US administration. The problem is that this work in progress will inevitably be not just a domestic issue, but will probably have an impact on relations with America’s allies. Yet, a realignment of the entire machinery is needed if the US is to remain a reliable partner and avoid outright defeat in Afghanistan. A structural flaw requires a structural correction.

In many ways, President Obama finds himself governing a country that is now paying the price of past excesses: the vested interests that were once affordable and manageable given the US position of dominance in most key fields of power are becoming a luxury. They make governance difficult, as exemplified by the poor monitoring and oversight that probably led to the Gulf oil spill, or the lack of regulations that contributed to the financial crisis. These problems are now made more urgent by the growing costs of the ongoing wars – which may account for as much as over half of the current federal budget according to some calculations – and the compounded costs of the financial crisis – with estimates ranging from the official $89 billion to more than $1 trillion according to other analyses. The expenses of indefinite military campaigns are politically unsustainable, especially in times of huge deficits and high jobless rates. Somewhat paradoxically for Barack Obama, the size and inefficiency of key components of the state machinery are hampering his attempts to deliver practical policy results, while budgetary constraints are forcing a painful retrenchment – if not downsizing.

Viewed in this light, the McChrystal affair shows how the overlapping of conceptual, organizational and staffing mistakes can badly damage external policies as well. It also suggests that, beyond changing key figures, reassessing coordination patterns is crucial to restore the ability to implement policy decisions. In the case of Afghanistan a successful transition entails extensive diplomatic work towards both Afghan and international counterparts that still appears not to have been properly defined. No General may guarantee success in that respect, although he may certainly try to alter conditions on the ground so as to make the needed change faster and less painful.