The McChrystal incident


The mission in Afghanistan has taken an unexpected turn with the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal. This sudden shift in leadership has been linked to McChrystal’s embarrassing comments in an article for Rolling Stone magazine.

The article, which hit newsstands on June 25, exhibits McChrystal and his staff openly criticizing senior civilian officials and Whitehouse staff. Among the many include Vice-President Joe Biden and Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. While the article does not reveal McChrystal explicitly voicing his distaste for President Obama, his staff had hinted towards his disappointment with the commander-in-chief.

Following an exchange between McChrystal and the Whitehouse and an apology to Vice-President Biden, President Obama accepted McChrystal’s resignation. Shortly thereafter, statements were released indicating that General David Patraeus would succeed McChrystal as Commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan and Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

At a hearing to discuss McChrystal’s resignation, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Michael Mullen agreed with Obama’s decision to accept McChrystal’s resignation, but spared no moment to praise the general. Both Gates and Mullen stood by their claim that McChrystal was an exceptional leader with an impressive military career, wholly committed to the mission. However, Gates holds that it was “a significant error in judgement… [that led to] an awful end to a great career.”

However distinguished McChrystal’s career may have been, it is regarded that Obama had made the right decision to relieve the general of his command. Patrick Dennis, professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University, and former senior officer in the Canadian Air Force, supports Obama’s decision.

“The comments that were attributed to [McChrystal] and to his personal staff in the Rolling Stone magazine article reflect not only a highly cynical and negative attitude, but also a climate of deep distrust for civilian authority,” said Dennis.

Dennis also commented on what this type of attitude could mean for McChrystal’s position.

“Such an attitude left unchecked, would certainly undermine a key principle of all democracies- that is civilian control of the military,” he said.

While the mission in Afghanistan has undergone a dramatic change, it is by no means at a crisis of leadership.

General Patraeus led the 101st Airborne Division before being promoted to commander of the Multi-National Forces in Iraq until 2008. Since then, he assumed the position of commander of United States Central Command, responsible for operations in over twenty countries. As such, General Patraeus served as McChrystal’s director in the US and was charged with ultimately approving the strategy currently in use in Afghanistan. As McChrystal’s successor, Patraeus has the opportunity of personally executing this strategy.

The war in Afghanistan will reach its ninth year of operation this coming October. While involvement in Afghanistan still remains controversial, US investments in Afghanistan have hinted towards the construction of military installations for permanent occupation.

As such, the solidarity in US and ISAF leadership is becoming increasingly critical to the cooperation with civilian leadership. While McChrystal’s outburst may cast some doubt onto the operation, Dennis does not see any ongoing trend in terms of the principle of civilian control.

“In this context I do not believe that McChrystal’s maverick behaviour reflects a trend of sorts, but rather a lapse in both judgement and leadership by an individual commander,” Dennis concluded.

To read the Rolling Stone article, click here.

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