Anecdotal evidence from retired senior military officers as well as their written memoirs make clear that tension between military commanders and civilian political leaders is commonplace. That this tension would manifest itself in negative comments, and joking in a “happy hour” type environment among trusted staff members is not surprising. What is hard to understand is the inclusion of an "embedded" reporter at such an occasion. The reporter in this case was one, Michael Hastings. That he was employed by a magazine the likes of Rolling Stone, hardly an objective and respected news outlet makes it even more difficult to understand. A reporter’s primary motivation in enduring the hardships of foreign travel and militarily environments can only be to burnish their credentials and hope to cover the "big one"; a major battle; a scandal; or an atypical situation which would make their story one of national interest. Hastings certainly accomplished that.
While his motives and whatever "rules" of coverage may have applied and/or been violated are suspect, the result was never in doubt. Participating in and condoning the potentially public disparagement of the President, Vice President, National Security Adviser, Ambassador to Afghanistan, and the Special Representative of the President to Afghanistan and Pakistan was clearly unacceptable. The public exposure of these comments made future cooperation and trust between the theater commander, his staff and the civilian authorities impossible. To his credit President Obama moved quickly to remedy the situation and General McChrystal behaved honorably in quickly tendering his resignation.
The news media have focused on the appointment of General David Petraeus as General McChrystal's replacement and the conventional wisdom, or media spin, is that it will be a smooth transition and the fundamental strategies currently employed in the war will not be changed. But there is an underlying story which is not being explored and which may be of some importance. That is: what were the reasons for the lack of respect and confidence in the civilian political leadership at the highest levels that stimulated the incident? The Ambassador to Afghanistan and the National Security Adviser are both retired generals. This might have led to rivalry issues. Ambassador Eikenberry was known to have opposed the "surge" which was an increase in the troop commitment of thirty thousand men. Was Eikenberry's opposition manifesting itself in ways that conflicted with McChrystal's strategy? If so, will this continue to be a problem for General Petraeus? Former Marine General and National Security Adviser James Jones has not publicly stated similar opposition but something was causing friction between him and McChrystal. Vice President Biden, who has a mostly partisan reputation as a foreign policy expert but no military credentials, is another public opponent of the surge strategy and Biden, never shy about voicing his opinions might have been an irritant to McChrystal and his senior staff. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, is a genuine foreign policy expert with an extensive, decades long resume' but Holbrooke has the well earned reputation, even among friends, of having a huge ego and prickly personality. It is not hard to imagine that his interaction with the commander in the field might lead to "turf wars" as the politics and military operations overlapped. There is no question that the political component is of great importance to Obama, Biden and Holbrooke and also to Ambassador Ikenberry although perhaps to a lesser extent in his case since he would be more concerned with the political outcomes in Afghanistan while the White House is concerned with the political outcomes in participating NATO countries and domestic politics in the U.S. as well.
Whatever interaction these senior administration officials had with the military command in Afghanistan was obviously flawed in some respect. Rather than ignore the underlying reasons for this and simply relying on General Petraeus to rise above it all, it behooves the President to investigate it and fix what might be an open wound on the conduct of the operation. Obama is not a "hands on" president, which is probably good since his presidential learning curve is still quite steep and his background in military affairs is nonexistent. However, it is possible that he has the wrong team, or at least some counterproductive members involved in the complicated effort in Afghanistan who need to be replaced. A single strategy with all the horses pulling in the same direction is vital to the effort.