McChrystal, Obama, and Afghanistan by Coby Dillard

So, GEN McChrystal resigned. In fairness, he wasn’t fired, though he probably would have been-from his position as the top American and NATO commander in Afghanistan…and all because, it seems, he said that President Obama seemed “uncomfortable and intimidated” at a briefing that he thought seemed more of a “photo op.” Let’s look at what actually happened, whether his resignation was the best move, and what it means for the war in Afghanistan (and the 2012 presidential race).

What Was Said (and its ramifications)

In his article “The Runaway General,” Michael Hastings wrote (with emphasis added):

Even though he had voted for Obama, McChrystal and his new commander in chief failed from the outset to connect. The general first encountered Obama a week after he took office, when the president met with a dozen senior military officials in a room at the Pentagon known as the Tank. According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the roomful of military brass.

It’s important to note that, throughout the entire article, the sentence at the end contains the only disparaging words of McChrystal towards Obama (the “Chaos-istan” comment stemmed from comments by Vice President Biden, and McChrystal had been previously counseled on that incident). Everything else-the “Biden-bite me” remark, for example-is attributed to “an aide” or “an adviser.”

That’s important. Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) states:

Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.

The UCMJ lists certain elements that must be present for a person to have violated this article:

(1) That the accused was a commissioned officer of the United States armed forces;

(2) That the accused used certain words against an official or legislature named in the article;

(3) That by an act of the accused these words came to the knowledge of a person other than the accused; and

(4) That the words used were contemptuous, either in themselves or by virtue of the circumstances under which they were used.

Numbers 1, 2, and 3 definitely apply. Does #4? Does calling someone “uncomfortable and disorganized” rise to the level of “contemptuous?” I don’t think so. The words of the various “aides” and “advisors,” though, definitely rise to that level and merit punishment. That won’t happen, though, because 1) they’re unnamed, and 2) McChrystal’s already taken the fall.

Why Resign?

Because this isn’t the first thing McChrystal’s done to set Obama off. And a fragile ego, already bruised, can only take so much before it has to strike back. Couple that with all the bad press that Obama’s received over the last few weeks, and you have the makings of a person who is well overdue for lashing out…and just needs the right spark.

With this incident –actually, the third– McChrystal was gone; the only question was how. But was it the right move for the overall strategy in Afghanistan?

Counterinsurgency operations-winning “hearts and minds” instead of winning through brute strength-require leaders who have gained the trust of the populations they work within. Building up that trust isn’t something that’s done overnight; it can take months or-at worst-years.

McChrystal had gained the trust of many Afghan leaders, including the country’s president:

“The president believes that Gen. McChrystal is the best commander that NATO and coalition forces have had in Afghanistan over the past nine years,” spokesman Waheed Omar said. Omar said McChrystal has worked closely with Karzai since he took command last year and that “lots of things have improved.”

Now, there’s no doubt that GEN Petraeus, who will replace McChrystal, is more than competent and capable of building the same level of trust with the Afghanistan’s national government (assuming he doesn’t have those relationships already). But what of the warlords that run large sections of the country? What of the villagers who have come to admire McChrystal’s painstaking-some would say overly so-avoidance of civilian causalities? Granted, Petraeus wrote the playbook that McChrystal used…but the people on the ground, on the local level, may not know him as well. So for them, it’s almost back to the beginning in building that trust. It may not take long to build, given Petraeus’ reputation-but it’s time that could be spent doing other things.

What It All Means

Will the overall strategy in Afghanistan change? Not at all. The professor’s running the show now, instead of the talented graduate assistant.

But will GEN Petreaus continue to serve as CENTCOM commander and the ISAF lead in Afghanistan, and can he effectively do both jobs? If the security situation there heads further south, will he recommend that our troops remain past the 2011 withdrawal objective?

And what’s the real reason for the selection of Petreaus? Clearly, he stands well above many of the names that were floated to take over for McChrystal. But is his selection to this post a vote of confidence in his abilities, or is it a ploy to keep him off the GOP’s presidential wish list in 2012?

These questions, and others, will ultimately decide what direction our efforts in Afghanistan take.

One thing is certain, though-with the appointment of his second general to head our mission in Afghanistan in a year-President Obama definitely owns this war. He has the people he selected in command and implementing the strategy he wanted.

Our success-or failure-there is completely in his hands…and not to be blamed on his predecessors.

About guest blogger Coby Dillard:

A blogger, Navy veteran, and activist, Coby W. Dillard seeks to apply conservative solutions to the problems of urban and inner city environments. He has worked with many grassroots organizations and is a co-founder of the Hampton Roads Tea Party. In 2009,  he worked on Gov. Bob McDonnell’s campaign as the director for veteran and African American outreach before briefly pursuing the Republican congressional nomination earlier this year in Virginia’s 3rd district.

Coby and his family live in Norfolk, where he is completing his undergraduate degree and working as a consultant.

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Join the discussion!
baldilocks says:

Thank you for being one of the few pundits who cited Article 88 of the UCMJ. Many others don’t seem to know that military members sign a contract which necessarily puts them under far more restricted rights than a civilian has. But, since you’re a Navy vet, it’s to be expected that you would know the deal. (I’m retired Air Force.)

That said, I do think that General McCrystal put himself in this situation on purpose– “falling on his sword,” if you will. He had to get the word out about President Obama.

Can things get any more interesting? Unfortunately, yes.