Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An Interesting Evaluation of US War Fighting

Here is an article in Wired Magazine by Spencer Ackerman that looks critically at Stanley McCrystal and sees the good and the bad. But the bottom line, he was effective, but managed to destroy his own career by bad mouthing the leadership above him. I'm sympathetic. I spent a career working for generally mediocre and incompetent people whose only real skill was bureaucratic jujitsu:
One of the greatest ironies of the 9/11 Era: while politicians, generals and journalists lined up to denounce al-Qaida as a brutal band of fanatics, one commander thought its organizational structure was kind of brilliant. He set to work rebuilding an obscure military entity into a lethal, agile, secretive and highly networked command — essentially, the United States’ very own al-Qaida. It became the most potent weapon the U.S. has against another terrorist attack.

That was the work of Stanley McChrystal. He is best known as the general who lost his command in Afghanistan after his staff shit-talked the Obama administration to Rolling Stone.

Inescapable as that public profile may be, it doesn’t begin to capture the impact he made on the military. McChrystal’s fingerprints are all over the Joint Special Operations Command, the elite force that eventually killed Osama bin Laden. As the war on terrorism evolves into a series of global shadow wars, JSOC and its partners — the network McChrystal painstakingly constructed — are the ones who wage it.

These days, McChrystal travels around the country to talk about his leadership style. His insights reveal a lot about how the JSOC became the Obama team’s go-to counterterrorism group. “In bitter, bloody fights in both Afghanistan and Iraq,” McChrystal has written, “it became clear to me and to many others that to defeat a networked enemy we had to become a network ourselves.”

McChrystal’s career also reveals a second irony: At the moment of his greatest ascension, to overall command in Afghanistan, McChrystal couldn’t take his own advice.


McChrystal set to work, as he put it, building JSOC’s network. One key node: CIA. During a January speech, he recalled how he needed CIA’s help getting intelligence on a Taliban leader he was hunting. CIA was secretive, compartmentalized and suspicious of other organizations meddling in its affairs — exactly what JSOC used to be like.

So McChrystal took the rare step of going to CIA headquarters, hat in hand. As it turned out, CIA just needed a promise that JSOC “wouldn’t go across the border” into Pakistan, jeopardizing its own operations. McChrystal agreed, the intel flowed, and the Taliban commander was killed.

It was the beginning of a new relationship between JSOC and the vast spy apparatus the U.S. built after 9/11. CIA operatives and analysts would visit McChrystal’s base of operations in Balad, Iraq, to plan joint missions.


Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave JSOC the authority to hold prisoners for 90 days before transferring them to military detention facilities. That gave JSOC jailers nearly limitless authority over their captives. Unsurprisingly, some began abusing it, beating prisoners senseless in a facility called Camp Nama — which Saddam Hussein used as a torture chamber — where the slogan was, “No Blood, No Foul.”

Although no public investigation has ever been conducted into the abuses at Nama, McChrystal reportedly said “This is how we lose,” when he toured the facility for the first time. He assigned his top intelligence officer, then-Brig. Gen. Michael Flynn, to professionalize JSOC interrogations. Flynn reached out to trained interrogators throughout the U.S. bureaucracy and even to around the world to provide instruction.

Subsequent interrogations of suspected al-Qaida captives in Iraq relied on Saudis brought in when a Saudi national was nabbed, Egyptians when an Egyptian was. Priest and Arkin report that detainees would even be videoconferenced in with their families — who’d plead with their sons to cooperate.

What was bureaucratically unthinkable before McChrystal is now routine: JSOC and CIA, matched with other government elements, now hunt al-Qaida worldwide in expanding, secretive wars.

Nor is that likely to change. McChrystal’s allies and proteges are all over the security bureaucracy. McRaven now runs all U.S. Special Operations Forces. Petraeus now runs the CIA. McChrystal’s fellow Army Ranger, Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel, now runs JSOC. Flynn is the assistant director of national intelligence. Ten years after 9/11, al-Qaida’s network looks more brittle than ever, while JSOC’s is robust.

The network McChrystal built, McRaven enhanced and Votel inherits comes in stark contrast to the rest of the U.S. security bureaucracy, which Priest and Arkin call “Top Secret America” and which remains disconnected, bloated and expensive. Priest and Arkin bluntly conclude that McChrystal turned JSOC around “by outright rejecting at least four of Top Secret America’s defining characteristics: its enormous size, its counterproductive duplication, its internal secrecy, and its old-fashioned, hierarchical structure.”

What the post-9/11 reforms failed to accomplish across the sprawling national security apparatus, McChrystal did in miniature.

“We had to figure out a way to retain our traditional capabilities of professionalism, technology, and, when needed, overwhelming force,” McChrystal recalled in Foreign Policy, “while achieving levels of knowledge, speed, precision, and unity of effort that only a network could provide.”
Read the whole article. It is an interesting peek at the US military.

It is dangerous to look for "heroes" to pin events and history on. The real world is complex and many hands stir the pot. To think that one person is decisive is to kid yourself. The fact that McCrystal could break the key rule of "don't diss the boss" shows that he had feet of clay.

What the above story doesn't bring out is the level of leadership around McCrystal and the level of commitment and support from the troops below. A leader can't lead if the troops refuse to respond. Guys with big egos forget this small but critical fact. America is rife with the "big man" theory of everything. CEOs are paid exorbitant salaries because they supposedly "carry the corporation" on their shoulders. What a load of horse pucky.

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