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McChrystal Clear: When Warriors Are Faced With Politics

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Fifty years ago, as the Eisenhower era ended and I was pre-interviewing guests for Mike Wallace, I met Gore Vidal, who astounded me by declaring that his father, who'd been Ike's contemporary at West Point, called Ike "the best politician who'd ever graduated from the Academy."

Last week, I visited with a distinguished American scholar who has been advising the military about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has spent quite a bit of time with General Stanley McChrystal, and he offered unique insight into the circumstances surrounding McChrystal's resignation. He agreed to let me write a piece about our conversation, providing I did not quote him by name. So I'll identify him only as "the general," even though he does not hold that rank.

To summarize his message, he believes that General McChrystal, either knowingly or subconsciously, used the Rolling Stone reporter as the way out of what was becoming for him an unbearable burden--the conflict between the best interests of his country and the best interests of the soldiers who served under him.

After Vidal referred to General Eisenhower as a "politician," I began to think that generals fell into two categories--political generals and warrior generals. If Ike was the political general who held the Allied Coalition together during World War II, it was General Bradley, General Patton, and even General Montgomery, who represented the warrior generals. In 2009, when McChrystal assumed the title of Commander of the International Security Assistance Force and Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, he was thrust into both roles, and by the time he talked to Rolling Stone, the conflict was tearing him apart.

After his graduation from West Point, McChrystal had chosen the most warrior-like path up the Army ladder. He went to Special Forces school, and commanded a Ranger battalion. He made Ranger training systems even tougher than they had been before. In Iraq, as head of the Joint Special Operations Command, he, according to Rolling Stone, "killed and captured thousands of insurgents" including Abu Musab al-Zarqawy, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. "JCOC was a killing machine..." When he first arrived in Afghanistan, he served as leader of our toughest fighters--Rangers, Navy Seals and Delta Force. He was a "warrior."

When McChrystal assumed his dual role, he discovered he was in the midst of a political fight. He found himself struggling with "diplomats"--Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, and other American and coalition representatives, all attempting to set our course in Afghanistan.

He showed his political abilities, out-politicked them, and beat them at their own game. According to Rolling Stone, "The most striking example of McChrystal's usurpation of diplomatic policy is his handling of [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai. It is McChrystal, not diplomats like Eikenberry or Holbrooke, who enjoy the best relationship with the man America is relying on to lead Afghanistan." McChrystal was no longer just a warrior--he was also a politician.

In his political hat, McChrystal realized that we could not beat the Taliban if we continued to rack up civilian casualties. Rolling Stone reports that "McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It's 'insurgent math,' as he [McChrystal] calls it--for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies...But however strategic they may be, McChrystal's new marching orders have created an intense backlash among his own troops."

Rolling Stone writes that, "a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan [says] 'I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers' lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing."" As to winning the war, one soldier said directly to McChrystal's face that "Sir, some of the guys here, sir, think we're losing, sir."

General Petraeus' counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy insists on winning hearts and minds. McChrystal, the politician, realizes that the coalition doesn't win hearts or minds when civilians are being killed.

"The general" and I believe that McChrystal's heart was bleeding for his warrior-soldiers upon whom he has placed severe restrictions. "The general" suggested that McChrystal realized that he could no longer maintain his dual role, for his own sake, and for that of his men, he had to get out, and the Rolling Stone reporter offered him that opportunity. He knew that his words could cost him his job, his entire Army career, and that some part of him welcomed that end.