McChrystal gained a certain renown when President Bush outed him as the man responsible for tracking down and eliminating al-Qaeda-in-Mesopotamia leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The secret force of "manhunters" he commanded had its own secret detention and interrogation center near Baghdad, Camp Nama, where bad things happened regularly, and the unit there, Task Force 6-26, had its own slogan: "If you don't make them bleed, they can't prosecute for it." Since some of the task force's men were, in the end, prosecuted, the bleeding evidently wasn't avoided.
In the Bush years, McChrystal was reputedly extremely close to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The super-secret force he commanded was, in fact, part of Rumsfeld's effort to seize control of, and Pentagonize, the covert, on-the-ground activities that were once the purview of the CIA.
Behind McChrystal lies a string of targeted executions that may run into the hundreds, as well as accusations of torture and abuse by troops under his command (and a role in the cover-up of the circumstances surrounding the death of Army Ranger and former National Football League player Pat Tillman). The general has reportedly long thought of Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single battlefield, which means that he was a premature adherent to the idea of an Af-Pak—that is, expanded—war. While in Afghanistan in 2008, the New York Times reported, he was a "key advocate... of a plan, ultimately approved by President George W. Bush, to use American commandos to strike at Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan." This end-of-term Bush program provoked such anger and blowback in Pakistan that it was reportedly halted after two cross-border raids, one of which killed civilians.
All of this offers more than a hint of the sort of "new thinking and new approaches"—to use Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's words—that the Obama administration expects General McChrystal to bring to the devolving Af-Pak battlefield. He is, in a sense, both a legacy figure from the worst days of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era and the first-born child of Obama-era Washington's growing desperation and hysteria over the wars it inherited.
And here's the good news: We luv the guy. Just luv him to death.
We loved him back in 2006, when Bush first outed him and Newsweek reporters Michael Hirsh and John Barry dubbed him "a rising star" in the Army and one of the "Jedi Knights who are fighting in what Cheney calls 'the shadows.'"
It's no different today in what's left of the mainstream news analysis business. In that mix of sports lingo, Hollywood-ese, and just plain hyperbole that makes armchair war strategizing just so darn much fun, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, for instance, claimed that Centcom commander General David Petraeus, who picked McChrystal as his man in Afghanistan, is "assembling an all-star team" and that McChrystal himself is "a rising superstar who, like Petraeus, has helped reinvent the U.S. Army." Is that all?
When it came to pure, instant hagiography, however, the prize went to Elisabeth Bumiller and Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, who wrote a front-pager, "A General Steps from the Shadows," that painted a picture of McChrystal as a mutant cross between Superman and a saint.
Among other things, it described the general as "an ascetic who... usually eats just one meal a day, in the evening, to avoid sluggishness. He is known for operating on a few hours' sleep and for running to and from work while listening to audio books on an iPod... [He has] an encyclopedic, even obsessive, knowledge about the lives of terrorists... [He is] a warrior-scholar, comfortable with diplomats, politicians..." and so on. The quotes Bumiller and Mazzetti dug up from others were no less spectacular: "He's got all the Special Ops attributes, plus an intellect." "If you asked me the first thing that comes to mind about General McChrystal... I think of no body fat."
From the gush of good cheer about his appointment, you might almost conclude that the general was not human at all, but an advanced android (a good one, of course!) and the "elite" world (of murder and abuse) he emerged from an unbearably sexy one.
Above all, as we're told here and elsewhere, what's so good about the new appointment is that General McChrystal is "more aggressive" than his stick-in-the-mud predecessor. He will, as Bumiller and Thom Shanker report in another piece, bring "a more aggressive and innovative approach to a worsening seven-year war." The general, we're assured, likes operations without body fat, but with plenty of punch. And though no one quite says this, given his closeness to Rumsfeld and possibly Cheney, both desperately eager to "take the gloves off" on a planetary scale, his mentality is undoubtedly a global-war-on-terror one, which translates into no respect for boundaries, restraints, or the sovereignty of others. After all, as journalist Gareth Porter pointed out recently in a thoughtful Asia Times portrait of the new Afghan War commander, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld granted the parent of JSOC, the Special Operations Command (SOCOM), "the authority to carry out actions unilaterally anywhere on the globe."
Think of McChrystal's appointment, then, as a decision in Washington to dispatch the bull directly to the China shop with the most meager of hopes that the results won't not be smashed Afghans and Pakistanis. The Post's Ignatius even compares McChrystal's boss Petraeus and Obama's special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, to "two headstrong bulls in a small paddock." He then concludes his paean to all of them with this passage—far more ominous than he means it to be:
"Obama knows the immense difficulty of trying to fix a broken Afghanistan and make it a functioning, modern country. But with his two bulls, Petraeus and Holbrooke, he's marching his presidency into the 'graveyard of empires' anyway."
McChrystal is evidently the third bull, the one slated to start knocking over the tombstones.
An Expanding Af-Pak War
Of course, there are now so many bulls in this particular China shop that smashing is increasingly the name of the game. At this point, the early moves of the Obama administration, when combined with the momentum of the situation it inherited, have resulted in the expansion of the Af-Pak War in at least six areas, which only presage further expansion in the months to come:
1. Expanding Troop Commitment: In February, President Obama ordered a "surge" of 17,000 extra troops into Afghanistan, increasing U.S. forces there by 50%. (Then-commander McKiernan had called for 30,000 new troops.) In March, another 4,000 American military advisors and trainers were promised. The first of the surge troops, reportedly ill-equipped, are already arriving. In March, it was announced that this troop surge would be accompanied by a "civilian surge" of diplomats, advisors, and the like; in April, it was reported that, because the requisite diplomats and advisors couldn't be found, the civilian surge would actually be made up largely of military personnel.
In preparation for this influx, there has been massive base and outpost building in the southern parts of that country, including the construction of 443-acre Camp Leatherneck in that region's "desert of death." When finished, it will support up to 8,000 U.S. troops, and a raft of helicopters and planes. Its airfield, which is under construction, has been described as the "largest such project in the world in a combat setting."
2. Expanding CIA Drone War: The CIA is running an escalating secret drone war in the skies over the Pakistani borderlands with Afghanistan, a "targeted" assassination program of the sort that McChrystal specialized in while in Iraq. Since last September, more than three dozen drone attacks—the Los Angeles Times put the number at 55—have been launched, as opposed to 10 in 2006-2007. The program has reportedly taken out a number of mid-level al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, but also caused significant civilian casualties, destabilized the Pashtun border areas of Pakistan, and fostered support for the Islamic guerrillas in those regions. As Noah Shachtman wrote recently at his Danger Room website:
"According to the American press, a pair of missiles from the unmanned aircraft killed 'at least 25 militants.' In the local media, the dead were simply described as '29 tribesmen present there.' That simple difference in description underlies a serious problem in the campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. To Americans, the drones over Pakistan are terrorist-killers. In Pakistan, the robotic planes are wiping out neighbors."
David Kilcullen, a key advisor to Petraeus during the Iraq "surge" months, and counterinsurgency expert Andrew McDonald Exum recently called for a moratorium on these attacks on the New York Times op-ed page. ("Press reports suggest that over the last three years drone strikes have killed about 14 terrorist leaders. But, according to Pakistani sources, they have also killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for every militant killed, a hit rate of 2 percent—hardly 'precision.'") As it happens, however, the Obama administration is deeply committed to its drone war. As CIA Director Leon Panetta put the matter, "Very frankly, it's the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership."
3. Expanding Air Force Drone War: The U.S. Air Force now seems to be getting into the act as well. There are conflicting reports about just what it is trying to do, but it has evidently brought its own set of Predator and Reaper drones into play in Pakistani skies, in conjunction, it seems, with a somewhat reluctant Pakistani military. Though the outlines of this program are foggy at best, this nonetheless represents an expansion of the war.
4. Expanding Political Interference: Quite a different kind of escalation is also underway. Washington is evidently attempting to insert yet another figure from the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era into the Afghan mix. Not so long ago, Zalmay Khalilzad, the neocon former American viceroy in Kabul and then Baghdad, was considering making a run for the Afghan presidency against Hamid Karzai, the leader the Obama administration is desperate to ditch. In March, reports—hotly denied by Holbrooke and others—broke in the British press of a U.S./British plan to "undermine President Karzai of Afghanistan by forcing him to install a powerful chief of staff to run the Government." Karzai, so the rumors went, would be reduced to "figurehead" status, while a "chief executive with prime ministerial-style powers" not provided for in the Afghan Constitution would essentially take over the running of the weak and corrupt government.