A Painfully Bad Document, but an Excellent Indictment: General McChrystal’s Report on Afghanistan by Daniel N. White

by Daniel N. White
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
Oct. 21, 2009

General McChrystal’s report is one of the worst written, most amateurish and unprofessional, buzzword and cliche-filled reports I’ve ever had the ill fortune ever to have to read.  On the other hand, it is revealing and informative in a way that the author(s) probably didn’t intend, a much more useful document than one with its gross flaws would normally be.  It is also a document that gives great insight into  the institutional deficiencies of our military and also into institutional and cultural defects present in  several important  areas of the American state.  The report is criminally bad, but like any other great crime, it is all perfectly out in the open for anyone who cares to see it, or in this case, read it.

The report reads like a very bad second-rate B-school paper whose authors attempt to cover their weaknesses of argument with heavy use of buzzwords, trendy jargon, and repetition.  Most embarrassing are the grammatical errors, which include incomplete sentences, incoherent sentences, and tense errors.  You wind up with sentences like this:  “My conclusions were informed through a rigorous multi-disciplinary assessment by a team of accomplished military personnel and civilians and my personal experience and core beliefs.”  Or try and figure this one out: “ISAF’s center of gravity is the will and ability to provide for the needs of the population ‘by, with  and through’ the Afghan government”.  There are dozens of sentences like this that leave you shaking your head.  There’s some interesting buzzword boners too–the sophomoric error of using a buzzword whenever you can because they sound good you know.  For example, the report claims, in two places, that the war effort so far has suffered from “a culture of poverty*.”  Yow.

The report is a crime against good writing, and that fact matters.  For starters, General McChrystal’s inability to write an intelligible operational report is prima facie proof of his unfitness for his position.  Military writing tends to have its own set of flaws, in tone and style it makes most English teachers wince, but it is CLEAR.  Everybody on the inside knows that if you can’t write a clear set of orders to your subordinates, or a clear report to your superior officers, you can’t officer.  Bad orders, and bad reports shipped upstairs, cause completely preventable errors of miscommunication that kill soldiers needlessly.  Which is the unforgivable sin in the profession of arms.

General McChrystal’s inability to write coherent and intelligible sentences and paragraphs should have disqualified him from higher command many promotions ago.  His superiors’ assent to a report this bad–McChrystal wrote it but they leaked it–disgraces them as well.  It’s time for McCrystal to get the ax.  Probably the chiefs who signed off on this atrocity, too.

One explanation for McChrystal’s bad writing is that McChrystal is a dumbshit, and the Army and the Congress and White House are content to have our theater commander be a dumbshit.  This is no joke; it is a very real possibility–back during Vietnam nobody ever accused Westmoreland of intelligence–“Westy is a dumbshit” was the Army’s own in-house historian’s (BGEN S.L.A. Marshall, as quoted by David Hackworth, in his About Face) take on Westmoreland.  The press never got hep much to how dumb Westmoreland was (or was his predecessor Paul Harkins, who was even dumber), nor did Congress.  Neither institution seems able to adequately judge military competence, at least not beyond showmanship skills. I myself won’t venture if McChrystal is stupid, as I don’t know enough about him  and there are strong alternative reasons for this report’s flaws.

Writing in jargon and buzzwords is usually the amateur’s attempt to cover up weaknesses in fact and argument. There’s some of that going on here, certainly.  But with a bureaucracy, buzzword larded reports like this are also almost always an attempt to hide a real problem or transgression of some sort. There’s a lot of that going on in this report.  The question is what is McChrystal trying to hide?

First thing the cat is scratching over here is the fact that the US has failed in its military objectives in the war so far, and that we won’t succeed no matter what we do in the future.  There is no word anywhere in this report of how this war is going to defeat and eliminate Al-Quaeda, which was, after all, our stated reason for starting it.  Al-Quaeda’s certain survival, despite our vast costly military efforts in Afghanistan, should call into serious question any rationale for our continuing the war, or, equally, the validity of our rationale for beginning the war in the first place.  What purpose then serves this war?  I must say I quite admire how McChrystal hides this horrible failure right out in the open, and has successfully done so right in full view of both Congress and the press, both of which, if they had any three of their five senses operating, would be up in arms about this.

Another thing being hid right out in the open is this reports intended recipient.  It wasn’t President Obama.  I myself would never dare submit a report this second-rate to the Commander in Chief, particularly if I was asking him for something he isn’t wanting to hand over.  Not only do you look bad submitting something grossly inferior like this to your superior, you are showing some low regard for him and his intellect and office when you do so.  Is that the military’s take on Obama, that he is second-rate?  It’s very possible.  If this report has circulated in the Obama White House without anyone commenting forcefully on its gross deficiencies they probably are right.

McChrystal is smart enough not to piss off his boss unnecessarily by doing this.  What’s afoot is something else.  Buzzword larded garbage like this is the lingua franca of official DC, and that’s this report’s target audience.  That’s why it’s written the way it is, why it was leaked, and why it was leaked in the bizarre partially redacted way it was.  McChrystal wrote this report for circulation on Capitol Hill and in the DC political class and the elite press.   It’s written in their language, not the military’s.  The report was intended to bypass its stated recipient, and it probably mostly has. Additionally, the way things work in the military, this couldn’t have been done on McChrystal’s own initiative; it requires his superiors’ assent.  This sort of thing has a smell of MacArthur 1950 to it, if not Night of Camp David.  It’s all fairly out in the open to the knowledgeable, and this sort of abuse of rank for political ends and advantage is shabby enough when performed in peacetime for some garden-patch raid on the US Treasury.  It’s much worse when done in wartime, when lives are at stake.

That’s the obvious things being hidden by the b-school buzzword bureaucratese.  The less obvious requires some discursion into the report to see.  The first thing to look at, the first principle of any discussion of war,  is the rationale for the war that McChrystal presents. It is gratifying to see a rationale for the war in Afghanistan presented.  I don’t recall hearing one for the war once the invasion was over.  It in fact requires a good deal more comment than can be provided here that this country is at war in two countries and the US government has yet until now provided a rationale for the wars’ continued prosecution other than the excuse that we are at war and cannot afford a defeat in either.  According to McChrystal, our war objectives in Afghanistan are to defeat the Taliban in order to prevent Al-Quaeda’s return to Afghanistan.  The unstated assumption is that Al-Quaeda would commit more 9-11’s if they had some sort of base of operations in Afghanistan, one that presumably the Taliban are anxious to provide to them.  The notion that the same Taliban the United States was willing to install in power, deal with through normal diplomatic channels once they were in power, and who were willing to disgorge Osama Bin Laden to us prior to our invading them is somehow going to allow the same Al-Quaeda it was willing to sell out in 2001 to return, and that that same Al-Quaeda would be willing to trust a future Taliban government again is fairly ridiculous.  What isn’t ridiculous is that Al-Quaeda has had a free run in Pakistan for the past seven years (the proximate cause being US Army command failure at Tora Bora) and hasn’t succeeded in any attacks against us or our allies for the past five of them.  How then Al-Quaeda is supposed to be more of a danger with Afghanistan as its playground, in the future than it is now, and has been, with Pakistan as its playground, demands answering.  McChrystal isn’t giving us any answers to this.  The fact that these fairly obvious questions aren’t being asked by either Congress or the Fourth Estate shows considerable failings in both institutions that are beyond the scope of this article.  The report’s buzzwordese is in part an attempt to hide the defective rationale for the war.

Some could argue that that is politics, and a political question, and therefore McChrystal can’t be held to account for just following orders.  That isn’t the case.  Questions of politics and strategy are both entirely within the responsibility of a four-star general, as at that level of rank the political and the strategic merge.  It must be asked, and answered, if any of the senior general staff have asked these obvious and important questions.  If they ever have asked them, their answers certainly aren’t in this report.

According to the press accounts, the report’s stated objective is a pitch to President Obama for more troops for the theater.  President Obama has stated publicly a good bit of support for the war while at the same time expressing dissatisfaction with the course and direction of the war–a fairly typical political fence-straddle on a tough issue.  Most likely not a smart fence-straddle, because McChrystal’s pitch for more troops is fitted to Obama’s call for a new strategy in the war, which will make it tougher for Obama to say no.   Press reportage says McChrystal’s core argument in this report is that the war will likely will be beyond recovery in another 12 months, unless he gets more troops.  because the Taliban forces have the military initiative, not us, and that the increase in troops is essential to regain the initiative. That’s the bait.  The real read on this report to the militarily knowledgeable is that McChrystal is reporting that he has the solution for victory in this war, via a new military strategy of counterinsurgency.  That’s the hook, set.

According to McChrystal, our previous strategy has been one of victory through military engagement and battlefield defeat of the enemy forces. Oversimplifying slightly, McChrystal avers that our previous efforts were failing because American troops did not interact with the Afghans in any meaningful way except via combat and force projection (driving around obnoxiously in full armor get-up to intimidate the locals).  This, says McChrystal, allowed the Taliban to strongarm the Afghan population into doing its bidding, and allowed the Taliban forces to increase in size and capabilities.  If we adopt his counter-insurgency policy, our forces instead will successfully interact with the Afghan population because we will stop driving around so obnoxiously and instead we will redeploy our forces and be hanging around the Afghans, protecting them from Taliban depredations.**  On the higher strategic levels, we will increase our efforts to improve the technical proficiency of the Afghan army–via “a radically improved partnership at every level”***–while simultaneously increasing its size dramatically.  Efforts will also be made to improve the functioning of the Afghan government, which is acknowledged as being terribly corrupt, oppressive, and a failure at delivering essential services.  The final leg is a call for a more unified command structure, which translated means that we will get our NATO allies’ forces in the country to do our bidding in a way that they and their home governments have heretofore refused to.

That’s the plan, stripped, mostly, of all the buzzwords.  Some of the most obnoxious buzzwords in the report are here in his discussion of strategy.  “ISAF will change its operating culture…”  “ISAF will change the way it does business…”  If there is any place that needs clear thinking, clear writing, it is writing about strategy.  None found here.  Instead, we have recycled bad b-school banalities being passed off as deep wisdom.  Back during WWI, an Italian professor, Alfredo Panzini, looked at the horrible dishonest purple Italian war prose, both government and press, and asked if Italy’s salvation depended on abolishing adjectives.  Reading this report, you have to ask if we in the USA equally require the abolition of all of the dishonest horrible cant and cliches that has been business reportage the past two decades, which has infiltrated into so much everyday American speech, and which stinks up the pages of this report.

McChrystal’s talk about counterinsurgency shows at best an incomplete understanding of the concept and his policy prescriptions reflect this.  There is a good deal of literature on counterinsurgency, much of it coming from the French experiences in Vietnam and Algeria.  Some of this literature got read during the Vietnam War years here in the US, and none of it has been read since.   Here’s two important points about insurgencies and counterinsurgency war that need stressing.  The first is from Bernard B. Fall, the French-American writer on the French war in Vietnam (and also a writer on the American war there until he was killed there in 1967) and it is as good a comment as the counterinsurgency literature has produced on just what an insurgency is about.  Fall wrote that an insurgency means a failure in government, it means that the government is being outgoverned by the insurgents, and until the government starts to outgovern the insurgency the war will continue, until one side or the other gets tired and quits.  It’s a good way of looking at counterinsurgency warfare, although reducing such a matter of the heart and spirit as insurrection and war to some sort of desiccated social-science formula of governance efficiency demonstrates the intellectual and moral limits of social science and its practitioners.  The second point about all the writers on counterinsurgency comes from Robert Taber, in his often cited of late but obviously never-read work The War of the Flea.  Taber points out (in 1965) that none of the writers on counterinsurgency ever defeated an insurgency and won a war, ever, not once.  That fact hasn’t changed any since.  ALL writings, and all political-military prescriptions based on counterinsurgency writings, must be regarded with suspicion.

McChrystal has an inkling or better of the importance of a competent  government is in a counterinsurgency, and a handle on how incompetent and corrupt the Karzai government is, as there’s no shortage of talk of improving the Afghan government in his report.  What is completely lacking is any prescription of how we, we the United States or our main agency in the region, the US Army, are supposed to bring that about.  McChrystal just gives us buzzwords and platitudes on how we are supposed to do it.    Partly this improving the Karzai government is a political question, one that McChrystal could argue, wrongly in my opinion, that is outside his purview as a military officer. It is also, importantly, a question about McChrystal’s understanding of the means and forces he, and we the United States, have at our disposal.  McChrystal is in a bind to acknowledge, as he does, the complete indispensability of a functioning and non-corrupt Afghan government to the success of his efforts in the theater, and then to punt, as he does, the question as to how that objective is to be achieved with the forces and means at our disposal.  Punting this question is completely unacceptable.****  I contend we have neither the means or forces at hand to transform the Afghan government into the sort of government we wish and we require it to be.  I defy anyone to show me different. Nor have we ever succeeded in any similar efforts of ours with any other of our prior client states’ governments.

If McChrystal understands that defeat is unavoidable without a functioning Afghan government, and if we can do nothing worthwhile to establish same, then the conclusion is unavoidable that the achievement of our military/political objectives is impossible, and our disengagement, at the soonest possible, is essential.  McChrystal, as the theater commander, MUST deal with this question, and his failure to do so, and the failure of Congress and the White House to deal with it as well, shows grotesque unprofessionalism and moral cowardice both.

McChrystal is singing the song of counterinsurgency, but it does not seem likely that he really understands the words.  Writers on counterinsurgency are all quite consistent on necessary changes in military training, organization, and equipping for counterinsurgency.  According to all the writers, successfully fighting a counterinsurgency requires changing army force structure from mechanized to light infantry.  The soldiers will require more  retraining for a wide range of useful development skills, like agricultural skills, for their postings to rural areas, because besides their soldiering skills it is required that they engage in rural development/assistance tasks as well.  This development/assistance task is required as it is the means by which the army gets and stays close enough to the rural inhabitants to separate them from the insurgents, and to undercut the insurgents’ support among the peasantry.  Opponents of this denigrate it, with some justification, as turning the army into an armed bunch of boy scouts, as extreme doctrinal changes in what the army is for are required to implement this.*****  Extensive language and cultural training is necessary as well. The amount of training, and the time necessary, to give your average 20-year old American male any useful skill set to apply in a rural area is staggering–the facts of life are that no young American in the infantry age cohort knows how to do anything useful unless they came from a farm or ranch.  And that’s not counting any language and cultural training–two years at Monterey for Pushtu or Dari; where our output for the last seven years has averaged something like 50 graduates per year of each.  Most of the modern warfare appurtenances–armor, navy, jet airplanes–are superfluous or worse to a counterinsurgency, and their funding interferes with useful counterinsurgency expenditures. Neither Congress or the Brass would go along with that too easily.   McChrystal calls for none of these generally universally understood as necessary changes in troop training, doctrine, or force structure. Instead, as noted earlier, he applies buzzwords, with a few exhortations tossed in for good measure.

The brighter lights in the US Army were aware of these necessary changes during the Vietnam War, but were unwilling to implement them, as the view was that the next big real war was more important than winning Vietnam.******  It is no more likely that the US Army will do so this time around, either. Does McChrystal understand these great changes necessary to his Army to fight a lengthy counterinsurgency?  Or is he punting on this issue as well?  Or is he prepared to argue that his slumgullion of buzzwords represents a breakthrough in military theory that voids all earlier writers on counterinsurgency warfare?   Whichever it is, and whatever he says, McChrystal is implementing no real counterinsurgency strategy.  Claims to his ability to win the war by implementing a counterinsurgency strategy are therefore false.

Questions must be asked about the call for an additional 40,000 troops.  I’ll grant McChrystal being right on how the US forces lack the initiative on the battlefield now.  The question is whether or not the additional 40,000 troops will allow us to regain the initiative.  Seizing the initiative means that we will kill a sufficiently large number of Taliban to where they will be operationally crippled.  For this to take place, the US forces will have to force engagements in a manner that heretofore has not happened, and force the Taliban to engage us and not lie low for a while. Traditionally,  the insurgent forces have always had the battlefield initiative on whether or not to fight on any given day, and there’s nothing in this proposal that will change that fact.  Afghanistan is the size of Texas, and the Taliban has managed to extend its reach across most all the countryside, so considerable question exists as to whether 40,000 troops is a sufficient number for the task at hand in a country this large with a large skilled motivated opponent.  We are all familiar with the 3 or 4 to 1 ratio that military writers say is necessary to prevail in a guerilla war, and this report lacks the OB (order of battle) numbers for us to see if that condition is being fulfilled with this round of reinforcements.  (And, serious historians of war know that there have been plenty of cases where even 10-1 wasn’t enough.)  Can the Taliban match our reinforcements with their own?  Do we have additional reinforcements available should the Taliban do so?  No answers to these questions here.

My sense of the situation is that the number of 40,000 is the largest number of spare soldiers the US Army can deploy to Afghanistan with our current force structure and Iraq commitments.  I might be wrong on this, but I’m not far wrong if I am.  This being the case, the US is being put in a position of having all its army engaged in two unsuccessful wars at the same time, either or both of which could go sour any time.  Should that happen, or should some other military exigency occur, we’d be in a bind.  McChrystal’s call for troops is a bigger gamble than is generally realized.

McChrystal’s report offers no real solutions to the problems the US faces in its war in Afghanistan.  And, it must be added, provides very little to Afghanistan and the Afghans to improve their lives.  As in Vietnam, we have decided to make key political decisions for them via armed intervention.  What McChrystal is calling a new strategy is just implementing those aspects of counterinsurgency–being nicer to the locals, getting out in the field more from their base areas******–that can be readily implemented without requiring real changes in Army force structure or doctrine, and without requiring any great increase in funding or manpower, either.  It is a halfmeasure, a kluge, a pommy-fix whose intention can’t be anything other than keeping the war from obviously failing on his watch.  The increase in troop numbers isn’t, and probably can’t, be shown as a sufficient number for their stated purpose of seizing back the initiative, assuming that the Taliban is foolish enough to play to our hand.  McChrystal is hiding out in the open the fact that he has no new strategy nor any solution to the war situation that will lead to a US victory against the Taliban forces, and nobody in the US military does either.

The report is however, a proof of the United States’ political system’s–the elected government, the newsmedia, the military, the general electorate’s–inability to face the political reality of a war that is not winnable.  It is certainly lost to a military solution, particularly one coming from the current US military leadership, one that produces a plan for action this bad.  We and our political system lack the wisdom and fortitude to face the facts of a war that we can’t win, that therefore requires us to make sooner than later the best exit of our armed forces as we can from the region.  Unintentionally but clearly stated, that’s the true message of General McChrystal’s report.  Whether or not we choose to heed it is up to us.

*”Culture of Poverty” was -ologist-ese for the old country saying that poor people have got poor ways.  -ologists generally used it as an explanation of why poor people stayed poor–it was a fancy way of saying that it was their fault, you know.

**McChrystal’s analysis of how the US Army is supposed to engage and defeat the Taliban is staggeringly bad.  Basically more forces will allow us to take the initiative from the Taliban because we will have shifted from our current failing strategy to a COIN strategy and therefore we will at the turn of a switch become more effective on the battlefield in a way we heretofore never were.  Anyone in staff college who’d tried to pass something like this off in a class paper would be flunked and made to redo it.  Nobody is willing to do that to McChrystal in Congress or the White House, and his fellow generals’ signing off on this bilge makes them equally culpable and equally needing their hands whacked and sent off to the corner for a spell on the dunce stool.

***McChrystal offers no details anywhere as to what this radical restructuring etcetera is going to be.  He should have.  If McChrystal is calling for something like the Katusa’s, that’s a very significant change in strategy and doctrine both.

****Basically there are three ways of draining the sea of fish or whatever metaphor you want to use.  First is this armed boy-scout sort of thing.   Second is some sort of concentration camp, like the British invented in the Boer War.  Third is just to kill a whole bunch of people, like we did with the Indians.

*****Great punts in military history.  1–Wehrmacht ignores logistics staff officers’ reports on impossibility of supplying an army invading Russia, 1940.  2–US Army ignores planning for postwar Iraq because the White House tells it we don’t do nation building, 2002.  3–This one, if it happens.

******Ward Just, in Military Men, quoted one battalion commander as saying that sure, the US could win the war in Vietnam, but that he himself was goddamned if the Army he knew and loved, and whose traditions he respected, was going to be changed as much as it would have to be in order to win this shitty little war.  I can’t imagine serving officers nowadays thinking any much different.

*******McChrystal isn’t at all clear about his force redeployments.  He talks about redeploying the troops to protect the Afghan population where they now are and is at the same time talking about pulling troops out from smaller posts in rural areas (concentrating his forces into larger units??).  He is talking about two contradictory things at the same time.  Afghanistan’s population is overwhelmingly rural.  You have to have your troops out in the small posts in the rural areas because that’s where the population is if your goal is to protect the population from Taliban depredations.  Your taking your troops out from the rural posts means that you are no longer ‘protecting’ the Afghan population.  It makes no sense.


COMISAF Initial Assessment Unclassified — Searchable Document – washingtonpost.com

Memo to Obama: Dismiss McChrystal by Michael Carmichael

Is this our Afghan moment of peace? 13 year old Afghan boy will keep peace vigil with other youth

Afghanistan, President Obama, and Nobel Intentions by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH

A Trail of Failed Policies and Lost Battles By Talha Mujaddidi

5 thoughts on “A Painfully Bad Document, but an Excellent Indictment: General McChrystal’s Report on Afghanistan by Daniel N. White

  1. Pingback: Daniel Ellsberg: Will Obama go against his own instincts to avoid a military coup? « Dandelion Salad

  2. Lo, if you want to read a good blog on counter insurgency you should read the blog of an acquiantance of mine. He was a platoon commander with the 173rd in Afghanistan (in enemy central: Kunar Province) and is currently reclassing to intel. He hasn´t joined IVAW yet, but he has a very critical view of what is going on there:


  3. The operative statement in this overly long article tthat criticizes writing while containing many grammatical errors, is No government, war or action has ever won against a broadly supported insurgency movement.

    What is going to happen in Afghanistan as happened in is that the US is going to be supplying both sides. Furthermore, it needs to be pointed out that the CIA created both the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

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