By Karen DeYoung and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal will appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee today to answer questions about the future -- including his plans for reshaping U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan -- and a past marked by both acclaim and controversy.
McChrystal's confirmation hearing follows the abrupt dismissal three weeks ago of Gen. David D. McKiernan, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. In announcing McKiernan's replacement, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he wanted "fresh thinking" and "fresh eyes" on a conflict that has been spiraling steadily downward with the increase of Taliban attacks and U.S. and NATO casualties.
McChrystal, who serves as director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, led the military's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) from 2003 until last year, overseeing the military's elite counterinsurgency units in their search for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders. Although most of the command's activities remain cloaked in secrecy, JSOC forces were publicly praised by President George W. Bush in 2006 for tracking down and killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
At the time of McChrystal's nomination for the Afghanistan command, Gates praised his "unique skill set in counterinsurgency," and his appointment marks what Gates has outlined as a shift away from conventional military doctrine toward counterinsurgency tactics.
President Obama's strategy, announced last month, expanded U.S. policy to treat Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single theater and enlist support from other governments in the region. It set the goals of stabilizing Afghanistan and preventing al-Qaeda from reestablishing a presence there. Filling in those broad strokes, however, has been left to McChrystal and his diplomatic partner in Kabul, new U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a retired Army general.
Senior military officials said they expected McChrystal to make rapid changes in the way U.S. and NATO forces are deployed in Afghanistan, in the command and control structure, and in the U.S. rotational structure that for years has depended largely on what forces remained available after military needs in Iraq were accommodated.
The current campaign plan, drawn up in October, leaves in place the division of Afghanistan into separate commands in the east, south, west and north, each assigned to a NATO country. U.S. forces are in charge in the east, although the 17,000 additional combat troops Obama authorized this year will be sent primarily to the south, the area with the most Taliban members and the most fighting.
A number of NATO and other countries participating in the multinational coalition in Afghanistan have prohibited their troops from performing certain combat duties. One option before McChrystal, a military official said, "is to lay out resources by tasks" rather than geography, allowing most non-U.S. forces to concentrate on training and other tasks, while U.S. combat forces deploy wherever they are needed. "You do a function, not a territory," the official said.
McChrystal may also try to change rotational structures to build familiarity and expertise within a force that is likely to be fighting in Afghanistan for years to come. This would involve an effort to maintain continuity by assigning regular combat units to the same regions of Afghanistan where they have previously served, a practice now common only among Army Special Forces units.
Although the committee's concentration in questioning McChrystal will focus largely on the new Afghanistan strategy, Senate aides said members are likely to raise questions about his earlier command of JSOC in Afghanistan and Iraq.
During his confirmation hearings for his current position, lawmakers probed McChrystal's knowledge of alleged abuse of detainees by Special Operations task force members at a secret facility in Iraq known as Camp Nama and at other locations. According to a report released this spring by Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the Special Operations task force preparing to go to Iraq in February 2003 obtained a copy of interrogation procedures approved by then-Defense Secretary Donald M. Rumsfeld for Afghanistan -- where McChrystal had served as head of military operations between 2001 and 2003 -- and "adopted [the procedures] verbatim."
The procedures included stress positions, sleep deprivation and use of dogs and were the rule until October 2003. In May 2003, CIA general counsel Scott W. Muller told Pentagon general counsel William J. Haynes II that techniques used by the Special Operations unit interrogating detainees in Iraq were "more aggressive" than those used by the CIA on the same prisoners, according to Levin.
"There were concerns," said one former Senate staff member familiar with last year's McChrystal confirmation, adding that the committee "looked very closely at what he might have known about abuses that were occurring." In the end, however, investigators were unable to find anything conclusive about McChrystal's knowledge. "There was no trail leading back to him, but you couldn't tell whether he knew something or not," the former staff member said.
Ultimately, such concerns were overridden because McChrystal had an outstanding military record and was viewed as highly professional. "We felt confident he was not willy-nilly running around getting caught up in advocating these tactics" as some other officers had, the staff member said.
McChrystal was also in charge of JSOC when Army Ranger Pat Tillman was accidentally killed by his fellow soldiers during an ambush in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. That April 28, McChrystal approved the awarding of a Silver Star to Tillman. But the next day, while the U.S. public and Tillman's family were still being told he had been shot by enemy fighters, McChrystal sent a high-level memo to his superiors to warn Bush and the Army secretary that it was "highly possible" that Tillman had in fact been killed by friendly fire.
The memo was controversial because it placed less priority on setting the record straight than on sparing the president and other officials embarrassment "if the circumstances of Cpl. Tillman's death became public." An investigation by the Pentagon's inspector general blamed McChrystal for making "inaccurate and misleading assertions" in awarding the Silver Star.
The Army decided not to sanction McChrystal, although several officers were punished for their role in the incident, including Lt. Gen. Phillip R. Kensinger Jr., head of the Army's Special Operations Command, who was later demoted in rank. Within Army Special Operations circles, some officers felt it was unfair that Kensinger took the brunt of the blame while McChrystal escaped unscathed.
Others disagreed, however, saying that McChrystal deserved credit for being one of the first to alert military and political leaders to the likely friendly fire.
Staff writers Walter Pincus and Josh White contributed to this report.