A Further Perspective

McChrystal’s Secret Rebellion

Was the General rejecting his own rules of engagement?

By 6.28.10

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One big question that hangs over the quick end of General Stanley McChrystal's mission in Afghanistan: Why would a West Point and Kennedy School of Government graduate who runs eight miles a day, sleeps four hours and is smart as a whip ever do something so dumb as to talk to a Rolling Stone reporter?

Well, maybe he wasn't so dumb after all. Reading the accounts of McChrystal's last months on the job, I think it is clear the general had become so conflicted about the rules of engagement he was imposing on his troops that he finally said "The hell with it. Let Rolling Stone run with this story and see what happens."

The clues are all in the Rolling Stone article (which the magazine -- sickeningly -- is billing on its website as "the article that changed history"). The key section deals with the new rules of engagement (ROE) that McChrystal had begun to impose on his troops. The average infantryman was reacting with a mounting sense of betrayal and anger. Some described the new regimen as "being handcuffed." Rolling Stone reporter Richard Hastings reports one GI writing McChrystal to ask, "Why are we not allowed to defend ourselves?"

As C.J. Chivers of the New York Times reported in an article entitled "Warriors Vexed By Rules For War" the new rules have shifted risks from Afghan civilians and away from the Taliban, on to Western soldiers. They are about everything but force protection. Although McChrystal helped design the rules and could certainly defend them on intellectually, seeing how they are actually playing out in the field must have been painful for a man trained in the '70s, under the mantra "an officer takes care of his men." Chivers' article appeared in the Times the same day as the story of McChrystal's resignation. Things were obviously coming to a head. Even more suggestively, the first reports to emerge since General David Patraeus replaced McChrystal say the new commander may be revising the rules of engagement.

The new ROE generally require much more caution and many, many more verifications from superiors before a soldier is allowed to use lethal force. When the rules aren't restrictive, they are risk averse -- which is just as frustrating to trained warriors. Soldiers in Afghanistan told Hastings they now carry cue cards reminding them to "Patrol only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourselves with lethal force." What, one wonders, would be the need to patrol in an area where you wouldn't at some point run the risk of defending yourself with lethal force?

According to the new Counterinsurgency Field Manual, penned largely by General Petraeus in 2007, protecting civilian populations is the cornerstone of any effort to defeat an insurgency. But there is a growing problem in Afghanistan -- one that McChrystal may not have foreseen when he unfurled this winning-hearts-and-minds strategy. According to many accounts, the Taliban are starting to game the system. They exploit Western decency by surrounding themselves with women and children, knowing this will slow our advance. There are even accounts of Taliban deliberately creating civilian casualties -- which only creates more bad press and causes our troops to become more cautious. They know once we cause civilian casualties, we scale back.

An eloquent cri de coeur has come from Brigadier General Moheedin Ghori, the commander of the Afghan brigade. Ghori told the AP, "Especially in the south of Marjah, the enemy is fighting from compounds where soldiers can very clearly see women or children on the roof or in a second-floor or third-floor window. They are trying to get us to fire on them and kill the civilians."

In an article last February entitled "Civilians in Crosshairs Slow Troops," Wall Street Journal reporter Michael M. Phillips described a scene where Marine captain Anthony Zinni spent 45 minutes on the phone with military lawyers in Las Vegas before deciding not to call an air strike against four Taliban planting roadside bombs for an approaching Marine convoy. The Taliban had brought children into the area with them. "The last thing I want to do is kill kids," said Zinni. But the consequence was to put his own troops at greater risk.

This is the brave new world of warfare in which the old school warrior McChrystal was trying to navigate. My guess is that he had begun to find the whole thing intolerable. That's the only reason an otherwise seasoned warrior would ever put himself on the firing line with a reporter from Rolling Stone.

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About the Author

Stephanie Gutmann is the author of The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy (Encounter, 2005).