Changing generals changes nothing in Afghanistan

McChrystal is out and Petraeus is in, but "victory" is as elusive as ever

Topics: Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal,

Changing generals changes nothing in AfghanistanGen. David Petraeus

I spent the better part of Wednesday morning trying to keep up with the flurry of news about Gen. McChrystal’s recall. Everyone wanted to know, would he stay or would he go?

Between checking for updates on the New York Times and the Small Wars Journal and listening to George Packer and Fred Kaplan on NPR, I opened a package that had arrived in yesterday’s mail. It was a book: “A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency From the Civil War to Iraq,” by Mark Moyer. As the title suggests, the book argues that the success or failure of a counterinsurgency strategy depends on the quality and commitment of the individuals leading the fight.

Those who spoke out against McChrystal’s dismissal made the same argument. We can’t change leadership at such a crucial moment in the battle, they say. As one NPR reporter put it, “McChrystal is the war in Afghanistan.” Thus, many believe that the success or failure of the counterinsurgency strategy depends on him.

This just isn’t true. First of all, it’s unlikely that the administration’s policy in Afghanistan will change with McChrystal’s resignation. Like Petraeus, who has now been named to fill the job, everyone else mentioned as a possible replacement for McChrystal shares his emphasis on the clear-hold-build strategy of counterinsurgency and the importance of building up trust between the local population and the Afghan government.

Perhaps more important, the idea that this war will be won or lost by a brilliant general is problematic. Everyone agrees that both McChrystal and Petraeus are exceptional individuals. They therefore fit nicely into the standard narrative of counterinsurgency as told by many of its proponents. According to this narrative, there are enlightened generals who “get” COIN and dimwitted generals who don’t. The classic example comes out of Vietnam lore. As the story goes, the blockhead general, William Westmoreland, who gauged the war in terms of body count and bombs, was replaced in 1968 by the more astute and versatile Creighton Abrams, who made pacification and political reform a more central aspect of the war effort. A similar narrative emerged from Iraq. Here, the dimwit was Gen. Casey. He was replaced by the brilliant Petraeus who turned the war in Iraq around by revitalizing the lost doctrine and practice of counterinsurgency.

Surely, generals play an important role in winning and losing wars. But it is misleading to imagine that they — or any other individual — determine the outcome of a conflict whose causes stem from the underlying political and social system. Despite the counterfactual argument that we would’ve won in Vietnam if we hadn’t cut the rug out from under Abrams, the larger truth is that the South Vietnamese government remained unwilling to engage in serious reform, thus making lasting victory in Vietnam impossible. Critics of Petraeus argue that the decreased violence in Iraq was largely the result of political developments within the insurgency, rather than a direct response to the surge. If establishing a viable infrastructure, building a stable political system, and getting electricity to the population are part of winning, then we can’t credit Petraeus or anyone else with succeeding in Iraq.

The political and social barriers to success in Afghanistan are even steeper. As did McChrystal, Petraeus will face the superhuman challenge of refashioning a political system that resists change and garnering popular support for a government that cares little about the populace.

In the scramble to follow the latest news on whether McChrystal deserved to go, the question of whether it will make any difference seems to have gotten lost. This is rather ironic, considering the article in Rolling Stone that ignited the flames in the first place. Anyone who reads the full article will see that the jabs at Obama, Holbrooke and Ikenberry by McChrystal and his aides play a relatively small part in the piece. Much more time is spent considering the blowback from the rank-and-file military and the larger problem of nation-building in Afghanistan. By the end of the piece, Hastings has poked serious holes in the inflated wish that McChrystal or any other hero general can succeed in Afghanistan. “Winning, it would seem, is not really possible,” he concludes. “Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge.” In the meantime, though, we can count on the 24-hour news cycle to focus on the people and personalities — to pretend for the moment that the war in Afghanistan is really just a question of command.

Hannah Gurman is an assistant professor at NYU's Gallatin School. She is currently working on a book about the history of counterinsurgency in American foreign policy.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>