This past week, I finally got around to reading the infamous Rolling Stone article that prematurely ended the career of General Stanley McChrystal, and there are two things that stand out:
First, the article’s author, Michael Hastings, writes that as the general moved up the military ranks, “[he] relied on the skills he had learned as a troublemaking kid at West Point: knowing precisely how far he could go in a rigid military hierarchy without getting tossed out.” Hastings couldn’t possibly have known how prescient his description was, but it does beg the question: if the general had in fact developed such a keen sense of how far to push the envelope, where was that sense when he allowed himself, and his closest aides, to let down their guard to such a degree in front of a reporter? Frankly, it leaves the impression that (like Rep. Barton’s apology to BP CEO Tony Hayward) that this was no gaffe or accident. This was deliberate. What his motives were – was he simply seeing how far he could push his commander-in-chief? did he expect and in fact look forward to being relieved of command? – can only be guessed at.
Second, while the incident has served as a helpful reminder of the proper respect the military must have for its civilian leadership, what has gone less remarked upon is how the incident also reveals, quite starkly, how dysfunctional the relationship is between the military and its civilian counterpart.
Hastings writes that while McChrystal’s team had been the “indisputable” voice at the helm of all military operations, “there is no equivalent position on the diplomatic or political side.” In fact, there is such a position – the NATO Chief Civilian Representative, a post held by Englishman Mark Sedwill. But, as an anonymous official tells Hastings, “that position needs to be filled by an American for it to have weight.”
Not even so much as weight, but a sense of coherence in the mission. It quickly becomes clear the degree of overlap and redundancy that troubles the civilian end of the Afghanistan effort – a chief NATO representative responsible for direct communication between the war zone and NATO headquarters, as well as coordinating communications between senior Afghan officials and the international community; an American ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, who is presumably responsible for overseeing the US State Department’s program of promoting a stable and accountable government, as well as representing American interests as regards Afghan politics; and the special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, shuttling around to maintain international support of the mission in the face of growing skepticism, and hoping for a chance to more actively negotiate between the Afghan and Pakistani governments. In the vacuum left by this diplomatic chaos, it is no surprise that Gen. McChrystal sought to fill it, even at the expense of the overall mission, which must have an equal civilian effort if there is to be any hope of a stable and secure Afghanistan.
Luckily, newly appointed Gen. Petraeus seems to understand this. It gives a small amount of hope that the military and civilian forces will soon be operating from, if not the same, than at least a more similar playbook.
What has gone even more unmentioned in regards to Afghanistan is the recent announcement of the existence of large amounts of mineral deposits in the country. This news should be transforming the public debate about Afghanistan – on the other hand, it’s probably premature to discuss the long-term value of the discovered mineral deposits until the country is considered more secure. But this offers the US its greatest chance yet to affect some long-term benefit for the country, and the region. First, there is finally a viable alternative to the black-market fueled poppy industry. Second, the establishment of a transparent, stable, and ecologically sound mining industry is a tangible post to which the development of a non-corrupt Afghan government can be tied. Finally, the so-far inestimable value of the mineral deposits presents the possibility of an Afghanistan that is no longer an impoverished backwater, but a financially prosperous and self-sufficient state. This is an opportunity that must not be passed up or, more importantly, screwed up.