Army Officers Criticize Rebuke of Gen. McChrystal

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Army officers gathered at a convention in Washington this week said senior White House officials should not have rebuked Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for saying publicly that a scaled-back war effort would not succeed.

The hallways at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center buzzed with sympathy for McChrystal, who has said the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan risks failure without a rapid infusion of additional forces. Obama and his advisers are now debating strategy in Afghanistan, with some officials arguing against additional deployments.

"It was definitely a hand slap," one Army officer said of the statement last weekend by national security adviser James L. Jones, a retired Marine general, that military officials should pass advice to President Obama through their chain of command. The Army officer, like others attending the annual meeting of the Association of the United States Army, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the politically sensitive issue.

A number of senior Army officers compared McChrystal to Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army chief of staff who warned before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 that it would take several hundred thousand troops to secure the country -- advice that was dismissed as "wildly off the mark" by then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.

"You know what happened to Shinseki," said one Army general, referring to what many officers believe was the Bush administration's punitive treatment of the general, now Obama's secretary of veteran affairs. Shinseki's assessment was vindicated when President George W. Bush increased U.S. troop levels in Iraq.

"We take the kids to war and ask them to take a bullet. So you won't stop Stan from saying what he thinks is best for the mission and the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines," said the general, who is an acquaintance of McChrystal's.

Other officers faulted the Obama and Bush administrations for failing to define the mission in Afghanistan, leaving a series of commanders to do so on their own. "McChrystal was sent to fix Afghanistan -- is that to get rid of the Taliban or al-Qaeda?" said a one-star Army general. "Without the mission being defined well, you've left it to them to decide what to do."

Several officers said such tensions arose because the military is serving a civilian leadership. "You kind of get used to it after years of service," the Army general said. "We tend to live with it."

Some officers observed that political leaders must commit the resources needed to fulfill their goals. If not, they said, the goals must change. "Gen. McChrystal has given an assessment of what the military strategy should be to achieve the political objective," said an Army officer who served in Afghanistan under McChrystal and his predecessor, Gen. David D. McKiernan, who was abruptly relieved in May by the Pentagon leadership.

"It comes down to: How much am I willing to commit, and if I can't contribute what the commander needs, do I have to change my objective? It happens time and time again with senior military commanders and civilian leaders."

Policy in Afghanistan

For years, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have said they need thousands of additional troops to combat a growing Taliban insurgency and to train the Afghan army and police forces. As the violence began to increase in the country in 2006 and 2007, the Bush administration made it clear to commanders that no significant troop increase in Afghanistan was possible given the priority placed on quelling the violence in Iraq, according to officers familiar with decisions at that time. McKiernan made a very public appeal for tens of thousands of additional forces, and that led to initial troop increases first under Bush and then Obama.

When McChrystal was selected by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to replace McKiernan, the belief in military circles was that he would be given the resources to conduct a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan -- finally providing what officers had long believed was necessary to try to stem increasing violence.

The Pentagon has also pressed NATO and other international allies to supply more forces, but Army officers at the convention voiced concern that signs of division within the Obama administration over Afghanistan strategy could sap the commitment of governments struggling to maintain public support for a sustained campaign.

Several officers simply shrugged off the civilian admonishments to the military -- most recently issued by Gates, who on Monday pointedly told hundreds of Army personnel attending an opening ceremony of the convention that military advice should be candid but private.

"The public admonishments -- fine. If you made general, you've been chewed out a few times," said one senior Army general.

Officers said there was no question that McChrystal and other commanders would carry out whatever decisions Obama makes. "We will tell you what we think, but we are also soldiers, so if the president gives an order, we will execute it," the senior officer said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company