This Rolling Stone profile of General McChrystal has recently led to his downfall. But the really troubling thing about the article isn’t what McChrystal thinks of his civilian superiors (although that is troubling) but the picture it paints of the war effort itself:
One soldier shows me the list of new regulations the platoon was given. “Patrol only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourselves with lethal force,” the laminated card reads. For a soldier who has traveled halfway around the world to fight, that’s like telling a cop he should only patrol in areas where he knows he won’t have to make arrests. “Does that make any fucking sense?” asks Pfc. Jared Pautsch. “We should just drop a fucking bomb on this place. You sit and ask yourself: What are we doing here?”
The rules handed out here are not what McChrystal intended – they’ve been distorted as they passed through the chain of command – but knowing that does nothing to lessen the anger of troops on the ground. “Fuck, when I came over here and heard that McChrystal was in charge, I thought we would get our fucking gun on,” says Hicks, who has served three tours of combat. “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.”
The fundamental problem here is the mismatch between the top-down strategy that Gen. McChrystal sold to Pres. Obama and the way that strategy has translated into the orders given to men on the ground. It’s hard to know from the outside whether the problem is that the orders got garbled as they went down the chain of command, or if the orders were incoherent to start with. But in a sense it doesn’t matter: if your strategy is too complex or subtle to be implemented correctly by Big Army, then it’s not a good strategy no matter how good it might have looked on a PowerPoint slide.
Pres. Obama has announced that Gen. Patraeus will be taking over for Gen. McChrystal, and he says that “This is a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy.” Which is a shame, because the most important lesson I draw from the Rolling Stone article is that the people actually charged with carrying out the policy don’t think it’s working.