In the Arena


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Here is the Stanley McChrystal I know: A few months ago, he received an email from a soldier fighting in Kandahar Province. The soldier was frustrated–as most of his comrades are–with the very restrictive rules of engagement that the General had laid down to prevent civilian casualties. Rather than ignore the email or have the trooper reprimanded, McChrystal went to Kandahar and walked a patrol with the soldier’s squad. Afterwards, he had a meal with the squad and explained the necessity for the new rules.

This is an extraordinary man, with the perfect skill set necessary for the mission in Afghanistan: a thorough knowledge of counterinsurgency and deep experience in special operations. But there is another side to McChrystal: he is so focused on his real job that he hasn’t spent sufficient time learning how to play the public relations game. He speaks his mind; in private conversations, I’ve found, he is incapable of fudging the truth. This leads to a certain myopia, an innocence regarding the not-so-brave new world of the media. He spoke his mind during a question and answer session in London last autumn, expressing his skepticism about Vice President Biden’s preference for a smaller force in Afghanistan, with a heavy emphasis on special operations. And now he has been caught by a Rolling Stone reporter, speaking his mind on a number of subjects.

The opinions he expresses are not surprising to those of us who have covered this war–although his statements about the President are at variance with things McChrystal has told me in the past. As I wrote last week, the backbiting has gotten very intense–on all sides–as the frustrations of the mission mount. What is surprising is his willingness to express these opinions on the record, and that he allows his staff to do the same. The lack of discipline and the disrespect he has shown his Commander-in-Chief are very much at odds with military tradition and practice.

I suppose he will have to be sacked now. He is not irreplaceable. There are more than a few fine generals in the Army, including Lt. General David Rodriguez, a McChrystal deputy with vast experience in Afghanistan. But it is a terrible setback, a diversion from the business hand at a crucial moment in the conflict. And it is a real tragedy, because Stanley McChrystal is precisely the sort of man who should be leading American troops in battle.

Update: This, by Spencer Ackerman, is a very good analysis of the situation.