The McChrystal Myth: Does He Really ‘Get’ COIN?

I’m not going to spend too much time piling on to the McChrystal story, which one way or another will be resolved in the next few days. I do want to address one recurring theme of the commentary, though, which is this idea that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, despite having royally blundered regarding the Rolling Stone profile, really “gets” COIN and is the best man for the job in Afghanistan.

The problem is that when you go through the Army’s vaunted counterinsurgency field manual (.pdf), McChrystal, as revealed in the profile, is guilty of a failure in leadership on the most basic, fundamental aspect of COIN operations: civil-military integration. The essential “revolution” of COIN operations was the realization that combat operations without civilian stabilization efforts are insufficient to defeating an insurgency. This is why the very first operational chapter of the manual, after a brief history of insurgency and counterinsurgency, is titled “Unity of Effort: Integrating Civilian and Military Activities.”

The kind of hostility that McChrystal and his staff openly displayed for U.S. — as well as French — civilian authorities is more than just a breach of military ethics. It reflects a fundamental rejection of the central and essential element without which COIN operations are bound to fail. On this, the manual is unequivocal: “Each [line of operations] depends on the others. The interdependence of the lines is total: If one fails, the mission fails.” (p. 2-2, section 2-8, emphasis added).

The problem is not that this previously hidden hostility to the civilian authorities leading the non-military efforts came to light. It is that this hostility is perfectly incompatible with COIN operations.

For those who argue, like Kori Schake, that the kind of “rough talk” on display in the article comes with the territory, or that McChrystal was unintentionally “done in” by his staff’s impolitic banter, I would refer them to the manual’s section on leadership, and in particular the following:

Army and Marine Corps leaders work proactively to establish and maintain the proper ethical climate of their organizations. They serve as visible examples for every subordinate, demonstrating cherished values and military virtues in their decisions and actions. (p. 7-1, section 7-2)

As well as this:

Senior commanders must maintain the “moral high ground” in all their units’ deeds and words. (p. 7-2, section 7-10)

Or this:

Leaders at every level establish an ethical tone and climate that guards against the moral complacency and frustrations that build up in protracted COIN operations. (p. 7-2, section 7-12)

By comparison, and without unduly buying into the parallel “Petraeus Myth,” I have a hard time imagining Gen. David Petraeus countenancing the kind of atmosphere on display in the article, let alone bathing in it, not just because it’s stupid, but because it really is antithetical to the operational objectives of COIN. Yes, resentments are part of any working environment, and yes, war is no ordinary working environment.

But the breakdown in discipline reflected by the article is at odds with the idea that McChrystal is a COIN genius who was done in by a few too many beers in a Paris pub. In fact, it suggests that he makes for a great No. 2 man in a COIN operation, but may have just met his “Peter Principle” moment.