US choice hardly McChrystal clear By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The choice of Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal to become the
new United States commander in Afghanistan has been hailed by Defense Secretary
Robert Gates and national news media as ushering in a new unconventional
approach to counter-insurgency.
But McChrystal's background sends a very different message from the one claimed
by Gates and the news media. His long specialization in counter-terrorism
operations suggests an officer who is likely to have more interest in targeted
killings than in the kind of politically sensitive counter-insurgency program
that the Barack Obama administration has said it intends to carry out.
In announcing the extraordinary firing of General David McKiernan and the
nomination of McChrystal to replace him, Gates said that
the mission in Afghanistan "requires new thinking and new approaches by our
military leaders" and praised McChrystal for his "unique skill set in
Media reporting on the choice of McChrystal simply echoed the Pentagon's line.
The Washington Post said his selection "marks the continued ascendancy of
officers who have pressed for the use of counter-insurgency tactics, in Iraq
and Afghanistan, that are markedly different from the Army's traditional
The New York Times cited unnamed "Defense Department officials" in reporting,
"His success in using intelligence and firepower to track and kill insurgents,
and his training in unconventional warfare that emphasizes the need to protect
the population, made him the best choice for the command in Afghanistan."
The Wall Street Journal suggested that McChrystal was the kind of commander who
would "fight the kind of complex counter-insurgency warfare" that Gates wants
to see in Afghanistan, because his command of special operations forces in Iraq
had involved "units that specialize in guerilla warfare, including the training
of indigenous armies".
But these explanations for the choice of McChrystal equate his command of the
special operations forces with expertise on counter-insurgency, despite the
fact that McChrystal spent his past five years as a commander of special
operations forces focusing overwhelmingly on counter-terrorism operations, not
Whereas counter-insurgency operations are aimed primarily at influencing the
population and are primarily non-military, counter-terrorism operations are
exclusively military and focus on targeting the "enemy".
As commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) from April 2003 to
August 2008, he was pre-occupied with pursuing high-value al-Qaeda targets and
local and national insurgent leaders in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan - mostly
through targeted raids and airstrikes.
It was under McChrystal's command, in fact, that JSOC shifted away from the
very mission of training indigenous military units in counter-insurgency
operations that had been a core mission of special operations forces.
McChrystal spent an unusual five years as commander of JSOC, because he had
become a close friend of then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld
came to view JSOC as his counter to the covert operations capabilities of the
Central Intelligence Agency, which he hated and distrusted, and Rumsfeld used
JSOC to capture or kill high-value enemy leaders, including Saddam Hussein and
al-Qaeda's top leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
In 2005, JSOC's parent command, the Special Operations Command (SOCOM), was
directed by Rumsfeld to "plan, synchronize and, as directed, conduct global
operations against terrorist networks in coordination with other combatant
commanders". That directive has generally been regarded as granting SOCOM the
authority to carry out actions unilaterally anywhere on the globe.
Under that directive, McChrystal and JSOC carried out targeted raids and other
operations against suspected Taliban in Afghanistan which were not coordinated
with the commander of other US forces in the country. General David Barno, the
US commander in Afghanistan, has said that he put a stop to targeted airstrikes
in early 2004, but they resumed after he was replaced by McKiernan in 2005.
US airstrikes which have caused hundreds of civilian deaths have become a major
political issue in Afghanistan and the subject of official protests by Afghan
President Hamid Karzai as well as by the lower house of the Afghan parliament.
Many of the airstrikes and commando raids that have caused large-scale civilian
deaths have involved special operations forces operating separately from the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization command.
Special operations forces under McChrystal's command also engaged in raiding
homes in search of Taliban suspects, angering villagers in Herat province to
the point where they took up arms against the US forces, according to a May
2007 story by Carlotta Gall and David E Sanger of the New York Times.
After a series of raids by special operations forces in Afghanistan in late
2008 and early 2009 killed women and children, to mounting popular outrage,
McChrystal's successor as commander of JSOC, Vice Admiral William H McRaven,
ordered a temporary reduction in the rate of such commando raids in
mid-February for two weeks.
However, the JSOC raids resumed at their original intensity in March. Later
that month, the head of the US Central Command General David Petraeus issued a
directive putting all JSOC operations under McKiernan's tactical command, but
there has been no evidence that the change has curbed the raids by special
Obama's National Security Adviser General James Jones responded to Karzai's
demand for an end to US airstrikes by saying, "We're going to take a look at
trying to make sure that we correct those things we can correct, but certainly
to tie the hands of our commanders and say we're not going to conduct air
strikes, it would be imprudent."
The airstrike in western Farah province that killed nearly 150 civilians last
week, provoking protests by hundreds of university students in Kabul, was also
ordered by special operations forces.
McChrystal's nomination to become director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon
in May 2008 was held up for months while the Senate Armed Services Committee
investigated a pattern of abuse of detainees by military personnel under his
command. Sixty-four service personnel assigned or attached to special
operations units were disciplined for detainee abuse between early 2004 and the
end of 2007.
Captain Carolyn Wood, an operations officer with the 519th Military
Intelligence Battalion, gave military investigators a sworn statement in 2004
in which she said she had drawn guidance for interrogation from a directive
called "TF-121 IROE," which had been given to the members of Task Force 121, a
unit directly under JSOC.
However, the military refused to make that document public, despite requests
from the American Civil Liberties Union and other human rights groups,
protecting McChrystal from legal proceedings regarding his responsibility for
He was never held accountable for those abuses, supposedly because of the
secrecy of the operation of the JSOC.
Although he has been linked with detainee abuses and raids that kill numbers of
civilians, McChrystal has not had any direct experience with the non-military
elements of such a strategy.
W Patrick Lang, formerly the defense intelligence officer for the Middle East,
suggested in his blog on Monday that the McChrystal nomination "sounds like a
paradigm shift in which Obama's policy of destroying the leadership of al-Qaeda
in Afghanistan and Pakistan takes priority over everything else".
The choice of McChrystal certainly appears to signal the administration's
readiness to continue special operations forces' raids and airstrikes that are
generating growing opposition by Afghans to the US military presence.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.