Switch to Petraeus Betrays Afghan Policy Crisis

IPS — Despite President Barack Obama’s denial that his decision to fire Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan and replace him with Gen. David Petraeus signified any differences with McChrystal over war strategy, the decision obviously reflects a desire by Obama to find a way out of a deepening policy crisis in Afghanistan.

Although the ostensible reason was indiscreet comments by McChrystal and his aides reported in Rolling Stone, the switch from McChrystal to Petraeus was clearly the result of White House unhappiness with McChrystal’s handling of the war.

It had become evident in recent weeks that McChrystal’s strategy is not working as he had promised, and Congress and the U.S. political elite had already become very uneasy about whether the war was on the wrong track.

In calling on Petraeus, the Obama administration appears to be taking a page from the George W. Bush administration’s late 2006 decision to rescue a war in Iraq which was generally perceived in Washington as having become an embarrassing failure. But both Obama and Petraeus are acutely aware of the differences between the situation in Iraq at that moment and the situation in Afghanistan today.

In taking command in Iraq in 2007, Petraeus was being called upon to implement a dramatically new counterinsurgency strategy based on a major “surge” in U.S. troops.

Obama will certainly be put under pressure by the Republican Party, led by Sen. John McCain, to agree to eliminate the mid-2011 deadline for the beginning of a U.S. withdrawal and perhaps even for yet another troop surge in Afghanistan.

But accounts of Obama administration policymaking on the war last year make it clear that Obama caved into military pressure in 2009 for the troop surge of 2010 only as part of a compromise under which McChrystal and Petraeus agreed to a surge of 18 months duration. It was clearly understood by both civilian and military officials, moreover, that after the surge was completed, the administration would enter into negotiations on a settlement of the war.

Petraeus’s political skills and ability to sell a strategy involving a negotiated settlement offers Obama more flexibility than he has had with McChrystal in command.

Contrary to the generally accepted view that Petraeus mounted a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, his main accomplishment was to make the first formal accommodation with Sunni insurgents.

Petraeus demonstrated in his command in Iraq a willingness to adjust strategic objectives in light of realities he could not control. He had it made it clear to his staff at the outset that they would make one last effort to show progress, but that he would tell Congress that it was time to withdraw if he found that it was not working.

As commander in Iraq, Petraeus chose staff officers who were sceptics and realists rather than true believers, according to accounts from members of his staff in Iraq. When one aide proposed in a memorandum in the first weeks of his command coming to terms with the Shia insurgents led by Moqtada al Sadr, for example, Petraeus did not dismiss the idea.

That willingness to listen to viewpoints that may not support the existing strategy stands in sharp contrast to McChrystal’s command style in Afghanistan. McChrystal has relied heavily on a small circle of friends, mainly from his years as Special Operations Forces (SOF) commander, who have been deeply suspicious of the views of anyone from outside that SOF circle, according to sources who are familiar with the way his inner circle has operated.

In an interview with IPS, one military source who knows McChrystal and his staff described a “very tight” inner circle of about eight people which “does everything together, including getting drunk”.

“McChrystal surrounded himself with yes men,” said another source who has interacted with some of those in the inner circle. “When people have challenged the conventional wisdom, he’s had them booted out,” the source said.

The McChrystal inner circle has been accustomed to the insularity that Special Operations Forces have traditionally had in carrying out their operations, the source added.

The primary example of McChrystal’s rejection of outside expertise that challenged his beliefs cited by the sources is the case of David Kilcullen.

Kilcullen, a retired Australian Army officer, is recognised as one of the most knowledgeable specialists on insurgency and was an adviser to Petraeus in Iraq in 2007-2008. Kilcullen is known for speaking his mind, even if it conflicts with existing policy.

After McChrystal took command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan last year, Kilcullen was slated to become an adviser on his staff. But after some early interactions between Kilcullen, and the McChrystal team, that decision was reversed, the sources said.

Kilcullen’s views on targeted killings as wrongheaded clashed with the assumptions of McChrystal and his inner circle.

McChrystal’s staff was also supposed to create a “red team” of outside specialists on Afghanistan who could provide different perspectives and information, but after the inner circle around McChrystal tightened its control over outside information, the idea was allowed to die, according to one source.

Several members of McChrystal’s inner circle are officers who worked for the general during his five-year stint as head of the Joint Special Operations Command, which carried out targeted raids aimed at killing or capturing insurgent leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 to 2008, the sources say.

Two of the key officers on McChrystal’s staff who were part of his former JSOC inner circle are his intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn and his Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville.

Flynn was McChrystal’s director of intelligence at JSOC from 2004 to 2007 and then his director of intelligence at the Joint Staff in 2008-2008. Mayville also served under McChrystal at JSOC.

McChrystal’s political adviser, retired Army Col. Jacob McFerren, is not a veteran of JSOC. But he is described by one source familiar with McChrystal’s team as one of the general’s old Army “drinking buddies”.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. His latest book, with John Kiriakou, is The CIA Insider’s Guide to the Iran Crisis: From CIA Coup to the Brink of War. Read other articles by Gareth.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on June 24th, 2010 at 9:54am #

    It strikes me funni or odd {if it wldn’t be for innocents dying} for people to plan how long and how many troops an agressor needs to win the war and go home and live happily thereafter!
    And it is even eerier to plan it publicly! So, what is going on? What’s the reality and what for is the public talk ab that reality?
    Is it that all this open mike planning is just a hunt for the snark? And the real talk being held behind closed doors in pentagon!

    In the old days, a land wld use all soldiers and all weaponry in attacking another country. Occasionally, some troops were held back so that another land wld no attack it. But US seldom does that.
    There is no fear in US ab being attacked by canada or mexico; thus, no need to hold many troops in US while attacking another country.
    After all, everybody wants a quick and decisive win. But not USans!?

    Is it beacause it is easy now to defeat the armies, but not the pops?! And US is now fighting two peoples which are left with no armies nor allies or govts.
    Dose this mean, no war yet against iran? Fighting two bad peoples being bad enough w.o. adding third to it?

    Or is US warfare now just a business; with two aims: grab some land and keep domestics in constant fear and subjugation? tnx

  2. Gary S. Corseri said on June 24th, 2010 at 11:24am #

    Thanks, Gareth.

    This is the clearest exposition I’ve read thus far of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering and policy-making that led up to McChrystal’s firing. Some on the right–in the Repub party and among the Teabaggers–will attempt to paint the change in the Afghan command structure as an instance of WH over-reaction to a general’s straight-talk about our failing war and pacification policies. As America’s position in Central Asia, the Middle East, and the world in general continues to decline, demagogic politicaians will frame the matter in terms of internal betrayals and incompetence. This will start to play out with the upcoming November elections and will crescendo until the very fateful elections–or cancelled elections?–of 2012. Your articles get us beyond the media-hyped personality issues, and suggest the intrigues, machinations, conspiracies, cliques, military, economic and political wheeling-dealing that comprise the nature of life under our disordered and volatile New World Order!

  3. Don Hawkins said on June 24th, 2010 at 5:19pm #

    Just watch CNN John King just interviewed Oliver Stone and to hear the truth from Oliver Stone was strange for me because we never hear the truth and as he talked Oliver I kept say to myself is that the truth I remember now. He did say he was brainwashed as a kid in school history and his kid’s have now been brainwashed in school. His new movie SOUTH OF THE BORDER don’t go see it it’s about the truth. Oh John King I could tell was having a hard time with this interview as John has never used his eye’s has never used his ears yet and it to was hard for him to hear the truth he’s probably never heard it before.

  4. Rehmat said on June 24th, 2010 at 6:24pm #

    Gen. David Petraeus is a worse Israeli military poodle than Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. The later was fired by Ben Obama not because he insulted the “first Jewish President” – but because he insulted two AIPAC appointees – Joe Biden and Halbrooke.

    Let us not forget that Professor James Petras called Gen. David Petraeus “military poodle of Zionism” not long ago.

    During the NATO defence ministers conference in Istanbul on February 5, 2010 – Gen. Stanley McChrystal told the conference: “The coalition forces are not winning the war in Afghanistan”.