By Elan Journo
Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Rolling Stone interview created a scandal–but the real scandal we should be talking about is his Afghanistan strategy and how it needlessly imperils American lives.
Under his widely acclaimed counterinsurgency strategy, McChrystal “shifted the risks from Afghan civilians to Western combatants,” reports the New York Times. Translation: the rules place the lives and welfare of Afghans — emphatically including the Islamist warriors we’re supposed to be fighting — ahead of American lives. Consider the facts reported by the New York Times:
"Before the rules were tightened, one Army major who had commanded an infantry company said, “firefights in Afghanistan had a half-life.” By this he meant that skirmishes often were brief, lasting roughly a half-hour. The Taliban would ambush patrols and typically break contact and slip away as patrol leaders organized and escalated Western firepower in response".
"Now, with fire support often restricted, or even idled, Taliban fighters seem noticeably less worried about an American response, many soldiers and Marines say. Firefights often drag on, sometimes lasting hours, and costing lives. The United States’ material advantages are not robustly applied; troops are engaged in rifle-on-rifle fights on their enemy’s turf". [emphasis added]
I’ve argued in Winning the Unwinnable War and in talks around the country that this policy is self-crippling and morally perverse. And the policy is still in full-effect, as the experiences of soldiers on the ground can attest to.
The New York Times notes: "Several infantrymen have also said that the rules are so restrictive that pilots are often not allowed to attack fixed targets — say, a building or tree line from which troops are taking fire — unless they can personally see the insurgents doing the firing.
"This has lead to situations many soldiers describe as absurd, including decisions by patrol leaders to have fellow soldiers move briefly out into the open to draw fire once aircraft arrive, so the pilots might be cleared to participate in the fight." [emphasis added]
All of which confers an inestimable tactical advantage on Taliban fighters — “making it easier for them to hide to fight, to meet and to store their weapons or assemble their makeshift bombs.” Meanwhile, U.S. troops — with justified indignation — speak of “‘being handcuffed,’ of not being trusted by their bosses and of being asked to battle a canny and vicious insurgency ‘in a fair fight.’” How many more must return home in coffins, because they were purposely hamstrung in combat?
By all means, question McChrystal’s judgment in making derisive comments about his boss, the Commander in Chief. But isn’t it past time to question the propriety of an Afghan strategy that both endorse?
Post Script. President Obama has tapped Gen. David Petraeus to replace the disgraced McChrystal. A change of command at that high a level presents an opportunity to rethink the current approach and -- we should hope -- pursue a better policy. But instead the President made it plain that “This is a change in personnel," and "not a change in policy."
Elan Journo is a fellow in foreign policy at the Ayn Rand Institute. He is the editor of and chief contributor to Winning the Unwinnable War: America's Self-Crippled Response to Islamic Totalitarianism.