The McChrystal Review: Yawn.

by Joshua Foust on 9/21/2009 · 13 comments

The Washington Post got exclusive access to the McChrystal Report—a senior employee sent linky links to the Drawdown listserv!—and what do we find? Absolutely nothing new. Think about it:

  • We’ve known since early summer, thanks to the pundits on his review team, that McChrystal gave his team 12 months to “show progress” or the war would be lost.
  • We already knew, thanks to McChrystal’s leaky staff, that he considered the situation “serious but winnable.”
  • We already knew ISAF considers the Taliban a sophisticated and persistent enemy.
  • We already knew the military and White House have become deeply frustrated by the Karzai administration’s endemic corruption.
  • We already knew Afghanistan is complex, there is a “crisis of confidence,” and COIN requires localized thinking.
  • And so on…

Indeed, what I find most striking about this is just how thorough McChrystal’s staff has been in leaking the report’s most interesting portions beforehand. Much like the evolving narrative in which everything McChrystal does is genius and everything McKiernan did was EPIC FAIL, we can see here the power, or not, of an aggressive media campaign.

Also, wasn’t the initial version classified in some way? Who made the decision to redact it for public consumption?

Anyway, some followup reporting by Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung reveals what we’ve known for a while now: the Obama administration is paralyzed, apparently because it’s realizing Afghanistan is not, in fact, as simple as “destroy al Qaeda.”

And here’s the kicker: it’s getting increasingly difficult to tell the difference between reviews like this and Taliban propaganda. That is, we are all, insurgent and counterinsurgent alike, in agreement that “the rampant corruption in the surrogate Kabul administration, the embezzlement, drug trafficking, the existence of mafia networks, the tyranny and high-handedness of the warlords” (in the words of Mullah Omar) are a game-ending problem. Only the Taliban’s solution is to set up effective governance institutions, while ours, according to the McChrystal report, is to send in more troops.

Maybe we can learn some lessons from our erstwhile enemies. Maybe we can bother to take civilians seriously, and not think the military is a magic do-all that can solve all our problems. Maybe we can try addressing Afghanistan on its own terms. Or maybe we can cross our arms, say “not worth it,” and go home.

Who knows. The pendulum is swinging toward the latter—business as usual, a policy community afflicted with ADHD, and a refusal to take responsibility for the monumental human rights and security disaster that would result. But that hasn’t stopped us before. What utterly depresses me about this is, the war did not magically appear when Obama took office. After eight years, the military and administration cannot state its primary goals or methods for the mission. After eight years, they are still flailing about, blindly, as if it’s year one of a surprise attack. It’s enough to turn one into a downright pessimist… which is probably why I’ve been wondering openly if we even care about winning any more.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Sam September 21, 2009 at 5:38 am

Joshua, I totally disagree with you. It’s not the McChrystal review: Yawn. It’s the McChrystal review: Yikes.

Is this all the best and brightest can do?

Joshua Foust September 21, 2009 at 5:39 am

That’s fair. I meant “yawn” in the sense that it’s nothing new. My criticisms of this strategy are pretty common on

M Shannon September 21, 2009 at 7:16 am

Well the Obamites won’t be paralyzed now will they? Their star general has pronounced the solution to the problem. What’s to decide? The alternative is DEFEAT!

So get on with it and fork over 40,000 troops, 50,000 civilians and another $4 billion per month until educated Afghans can and want to replace the 82nd Airborne. Of course why they would when they can get GIs to fight the enemy while they work in AC’d offices at triple what the ANSF pays and their family businesses are making tons in DOD and DOS contracts isn’t obvious. And don’t forget for every dollar spent at least another three or four will be needed for long term health care, replacing worn out gear and pensions etc and at least another three dollars for interest payments to the Chinese, the other “threat” used to justify the high tech military expenditures.

Further escalation will lock the US into Afghanistan until at least the next Afghan presidential election. Five years, who knows how many casualties and close to two trillion dollars. Sounds like fun doesn’t it? Could Osama (with an S) have planned this better?

Brian September 21, 2009 at 8:02 am

At the risk of sounding like a younger Dr. Phil (with more hair!), the problem I fear is that few, if anyone, really wants to help Afghans.

Rather they want to feel vindicated, they want to feel they were *right* or they want someone to give them a pat on the back. We see this probably again and again in conflicts launched by the US and many other Western governments(all?).

We also see this problem again and again in international aid efforts launched by the US and many other Western governments(all?).

I’m afraid its become much worse since the 90s and will continue to get worse with the increasing dominance of news media and social media, providing the propagandists on all sides more and more access to our lives, and providing the nuanced theorists more and more benchspace on the sidelines.

The question must stop being “how do we help the poor _____?” It needs to become, “How did this happen? How do we create a fairer, juster world?”

Whether we are talking about the utter collapse of aid efforts in Darfur due to the desperate and crazy propagandizing of Save Darfur and other groups, or the desperate grasping at straws by the military and COIN crowd in Afghanistan, telling us they need just a little more time to “get it right,” isn’t it time we started looking deep in side and asking if we aren’t our own worst enemy?

OK enough Dr. Phil from me. I just wish people would shut up about what “the solution” is, and DO SOMETHING. As much as I hate quoting Toby Keith, “A little less talk and a lot more action, if you please.”

Abu Muqawama September 21, 2009 at 10:26 am

This is unfair, Josh, and you’re letting your understandable pessimism about the war drift into cynicism. The purpose of the review was to provide a sober assessment of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and an evaluation of ISAF operations. Funnily enough, nowhere in our duties were “say something new and sexy” included. So the first standard by which you should judge this report is whether or not it does, in fact, describe Afghanistan and ISAF operations there in a manner that matches up with reality as you yourself have seen it both on the ground and from afar. Often, these reports and the external experts who write them serve not to tell the staff and the commander something they do not know but rather to confirm something they already suspect. And though you might not appreciate that as an analyst, this kind of external, independent validation is something commanders often find useful. I agree that a lot of what we know about Afghanistan and what we should do there we knew when Gen. McKiernan was the commander. I could also go into more depth as to why I believe Gen. McChrystal stands a better chance of actually operationalizing a COIN strategy than McKiernan. But that’s another post. In the meantime, judge the report on what it is and what it was meant to be and not on what you, Josh Foust, wishes it had been.

Joshua Foust September 21, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Oh, hush up Andrew, and reread that post.

“Indeed, what I find most striking about this is just how thorough McChrystal’s staff has been in leaking the report’s most interesting portions beforehand.”

My point is that most of the report, at least its big conclusions, were leaked weeks to months ahead of its actual release.

And considering the political and professional bents of the review team members, it’s kind of misleading to refer to them as “independent.” Just saying.

Joshua Foust September 21, 2009 at 1:07 pm

And seriously? I’m not the only one to say the review said little that wasn’t already public and much hashed-over.

Steve Hynd September 21, 2009 at 12:40 pm

Josh, unless there’s another Drawdown listserv I’m unaware of, no employee sent it linky-links. I posted the WaPo stuff to that list myself when the WaPo sent out its usual midnight “headlines” mailer.

Regards, Steve

Steve Hynd September 21, 2009 at 12:43 pm

Oh, and another member posted the WaPo’s mailer in full. But that’s just a mass PR email to “undisclosed recipients”.

Regards, Steve

lucie lanes September 21, 2009 at 8:52 pm

I don’t know, can he say no to General McChrystal? If he needs to say no, I hope he does, but if he says yes, I hope he does what he needs to for the continued protection of our country and the USA.

Madhu September 21, 2009 at 10:01 pm

These things may not be new to you, but they are to a lay person who is casually reading the press, and might get the idea that all this stuff keeps changing, and the situation is changing, and now the President has to do something.

Hey, I’m just such a clueless layperson, and I assure you, it’s not all that obvious to me. Public opinion puts pressure on decision-makers, so I’m not sure the point of your post? What am I missing? People in the know aren’t listening to you?

You keep mentioning civilians, but even if you get a director of USAID, and fund things adequately, and free up the right State department programs, where are you going to get people who are willing to step into this? There are a limited number of people with the expertise who are going to step into a situation with poor security. Where are they going to come from?

hire September 21, 2009 at 11:40 pm

Good post but i don’t think about war…. its a so harmful for citizens…

FPWellman September 23, 2009 at 7:15 am

Speaking from the perspective of a PAO I have a couple of comments. First, don’t assume that McChrystal’s staff were the one’s leaking any of this. “I’ve-got-a-secret” is a favorite Pentagon game. Nothing thrills a mid-level Pentagon staffer more than being able to show how important they are because they have been read in on some piece of “important” info. That and the level of access your badge provides are the measures of coolness in certain circles in the building.

Second, word in the hallways is the decision to redact and declassify happened because somebody decided that they would give the report to Bob Woodward because his book on Obama wouldn’t come out for a year and by then the whole issue would be moot. They didn’t realize that Woodward is still on a contract to the WaPo and immediately decided to publish it. When the WaPo editors called the Pentagon saying they had it a mad dash ensued to negotiate taking out as much classified info as possible before the publication on Monday of the whole document. I guess in one sense it could have been worse as they were ready to publish it as is.

There are so many lessons to be learned on media relations here it is ridiculous. Lesson #1 is that classification should have been properly done at the start. When ISAF decided to issue it as Confidential they were asking for it to be leaked. Everybody and his mother had access to it. Lesson #2 almost every author writing a book needs money to pay the bills in the mean time and will publish the juiciest stuff right away to get some cash and build buzz for their book. Woodward is the master of that tactic. Lesson #3 as the famous skit on the old Chris Rock Show explains when dealing with the police…SHUT THE F@#$ UP! Its good to work with the media and authors but sometimes you just need to shut up and not give out secrets or talk out of your lane. If a document says “Confidential” on it…you know…don’t talk about it.

Of course…that’s just my two cents.

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