Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Runaway General

Since its publication last week, this Rolling Stone's article by Michael Hastings has been met with a lot of controversy. Not surprisingly, the 24-hour news cycle and blogosphere (hey y'all!) immediately jumped on the most gossip-y aspect of the article: the beginning that featured the General and his aides criticizing President Obama and generally maintaining a tone of derision for much of the senior administration. The Biden/Bite-Me comment was repeated throughout the interwebs and the cable news networks, followed by speculation of what the president would say to McChrystal when he was summoned back to D.C. from Afghanistan because of this article (Spoiler alert!: McChrystal was dismissed; Petraeus replaces him in the sequel.) After the dust from that settled, all of these cable news networks and websites turned their attentions back to the war in Afghanistan.

Nah, I'm only playing. Why should we focus on the true subject of Hastings' article, the international war crisis? Journalists, being an inherently narcissistic bunch, decided to turn their attentions back to themselves. For the past week, Michael Hastings' integrity has been judged by a panel of flacks sitting against green screens in their cozy offices, and his article has been dissected, exulted and assaulted by the public and press.

As a journalism student, I truly am interested in the consequences this article would have on the future quality of war reporting. I very nerdily devour blogs about off-the-record/on-the-record nuances when embedded 24/7 with a platoon and I love seeing what other war reporters have to say about this (Hi Lara, good to see you again! Even if you are dead wrong). But when the amount of articles/blogs/cable news time devoted to this "introspection" far, far outnumber the articles that actually look at the subject of Hastings' piece, I can't help but feel like we have somehow missed the point. *

Yes, Hastings has written a profile of McChrystal, but it was not to showcase the General's insubordination. The article is about how our military is coping in what is now the longest-running war since Vietnam with a controversial strategy that Obama has supported with the 30,000 troop surge last fall. This military strategy is known as counterinsurgency, or COIN, and it is not something that will solve the war's problems with one fell swoop. Hastings describes it:
COIN calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation's government – a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve. The theory essentially rebrands the military, expanding its authority (and its funding) to encompass the diplomatic and political sides of warfare: Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps

One of the biggest problems with COIN is that its success is hard to gauge. Dexter Filkins, an amazing war reporter for The New York Times, took part in a Q&A session over at the Times' At War blog and he said:
I think the best evidence of COIN working, at least marginally, is Iraq in 2007 and 2008. Remember how the Iraq war unfolded: In the first three and a half years, American troops concentrated mostly on killing insurgents. They did that, but they profoundly alienated the Iraqi population. The result was the apocalyptic levels of violence that we saw in 2005 and 2007. In 2007, with the surge, the strategy was fundamentally changed. The overriding goal became the protection of the population.

What is immediately alarming is Filkins reached for the Iraq war as the clear example of COIN working (according to Filkins, who said "best evidence" not "only evidence"), meaning that there are still really no successful long-term results that we can confidently point to.

Another thing that is disturbing in Hastings' article is how there is a disconnect between what the soldiers understand their role to be and how they wish to carry their roles out. Hastings gave several anecdotes of how soldiers are angered by the stringent directives from McChrystal to avoid civilian casualties. These young men believe that these edicts – that are probably distorted from having been passed down the ranks – put them in greater danger in an already-deadly war zone. Staff Sgt. Kennith Hicks said:
"I get COIN. I get all that. McChrystal comes here, explains it, it makes sense. But then he goes away on his bird, and by the time his directives get passed down to us through Big Army, they're all fucked up – either because somebody is trying to cover their ass, or because they just don't understand it themselves. But we're fucking losing this thing."

I may have to spend a little more time reading up on COIN but there seem to be an almost contradictory quality of a military invasion coupled with the COIN beliefs. By holding back the pressure because of McChrystal's understandable worries of civilian casualties, the soldiers believe that they are also allowing the insurgency flourish. Yet if they were to open fire on insurgents and kill a single civilian by accident, there will be ten more insurgents created because of the outrage over the civilian's death. This tug-of-war for the hearts of the Afghan people is really confusing to me, a reader. I can only imagine how it must feel having to try and fathom this while carrying out the duties of a soldier.

Finally, there is the problem of the legitimacy of Hamid Karzai's presidency in Afghanistan. Last year, Karzai won the presidential election, an event that has been accused of electoral fraud rife with government corruption. He is also not a reliable ally to the U.S., and is without the support of the Afghan people. Unfortunately, in order for the U.S. military to help rebuild a government in Afghanistan, they will need the support of a strong leader who holds the faith of his people and shares the values of Americans. Hastings said:
This is one of the central flaws with McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy: The need to build a credible government puts us at the mercy of whatever tin-pot leader we've backed.

It angers me, looking at these three main problems outlined in Hastings' article, that we can spend such a significant amount of time going back and forth about whether or not Hastings had betrayed an "element of trust." President Obama may or may not have dismissed McChrystal because of his Bite-Me jokes – but my guess is that the sloppy handling of this war showcased so clearly in Hastings' article is probably what convinced him that there needed to be a change in the commander executing a strategy that will very likely keep American soldiers in Afghanistan for an indefinite amount of time.

I'll leave you with the passage that broke my heart. It is about a visit that McChrystal made to the White House in mid-May with Hamid Karzai. Exultant praises are made to each leader and at one point, President Obama said, "There is no denying the progress that the Afghan people have made in recent years – in education, in health care and economic development," he said. "As I saw in the lights across Kabul when I landed – lights that would not have been visible just a few years earlier." Hastings follows the president's quote this:
It is a disconcerting observation for Obama to make. During the worst years in Iraq, when the Bush administration had no real progress to point to, officials used to offer up the exact same evidence of success. "It was one of our first impressions," one GOP official said in 2006, after landing in Baghdad at the height of the sectarian violence. "So many lights shining brightly." So it is to the language of the Iraq War that the Obama administration has turned – talk of progress, of city lights, of metrics like health care and education. Rhetoric that just a few years ago they would have mocked.

(*And yes, I have not missed the irony in starting this post with some media criticism.)

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