Can Change in Military Leadership Ensure Victory in Afghanistan?

Dr. Abdel Ghaffar El-Duwaik: Can Change in Military Leadership Ensure Victory in Afghanistan?

  • 26 July 2010

A change in military leadership during wartime operations is one of the most delicate and difficult strategic decisions for any country’s political leadership. Such a decision can lead to considerable confusion in the ranks especially if it is linked to a major shift in strategies. A change also suggests delinquency in the performance that could have a bearing on the morale of the forces. The process of military leadership change is subject in general to two main factors – the nature of relationship between military and political leaderships and the degree of agreements over war plans. The second aspect relates to the state of the battlefield and gives a glimpse of what is happening on the ground. It also brings to question the ability of the battlefield command to clinch tangible results by implementing its strategy and making operational progress.

Both these factors played their part in the dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal, the Commander of the American Forces and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Afghanistan, at the end of June 2010. General McChrystal’s comments published in Rolling Stone magazine – where he ridiculed the US President, his Vice-President and other political leadership of his country – revealed the divisions within the administration on the war in Afghanistan which, if allowed to continue, threatened to ruin the military’s efforts on the ground. President Obama was quick and firm in dismissing McChrystal because he did not want to appear as weak or someone losing control in the eyes of the Republicans especially with the nearing mid-term Congressional elections. Obama justified his decision by maintaining that the behavior of General McChrystal “does not fulfill the level that a leading general should display” and described his comments as “undermining the civil command of the army and the required trust of our team in order to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan”.

The situation inside Afghanistan also pushed Obama to take the decision without any hesitation. The security situation in the country has been worsening and the coalition forces have suffered from major loss of lives. In June alone, the number of casualties among coalition forces crossed 100 persons, of whom 60 were Americans. During this period, Taliban has been making noticeable advancements which has made many analysts and US officials believe that despite the country spending $100 billion every year, victory is not possible in Afghanistan. Among them is Dr. Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, who wrote in a Newsweek article on July 18 that victory in Afghanistan is still far and it is better for the US to lower its expectations in that mission.

McChrystal has been criticized and held directly responsible for the recent failures in Afghanistan. Observers in the US came to a conclusion that McChrystal lacked an important element of the necessary leadership in Afghanistan, namely the political wisdom. The mission in Afghanistan, according to them, is more political than military and needs fighting insurgency while preparing the ground for the withdrawal of the US forces at the same time. That is why they maintain that Obama found in McChrystal statements the opportunity to dismiss him and assign a new military leader that could administer the war in Afghanistan in a better way.

The dismissal of a high ranking military leader in Afghanistan is not the first of its kind. Last year, Barack Obama and his Defense Secretary Robert Gates dismissed General David McKiernan because of his inability to adopt new strategies in Afghanistan. On the other hand, McChrystal was chosen because the American administration saw him as the most capable to administer the war. However, he could not prevent the continuous reversals for the American forces and neither could he limit the increasing influence of the Taliban. McChrystal even warned in September last year that the coalition forces could lose the war in Afghanistan. According to Western media sources, McChrystal presented a negative summary of the situation to NATO defense ministers just days before he was dismissed. He indicated that no progress should be expected in the next six months and doubted the possibility of the withdrawal of US forces in July 2011, as President Obama had desired. This was another factor that encouraged President Obama to dismiss his military leader.

The appointment of General David Petraeus as the head of the US Central Command was even more significant than the dismissal of McChrystal. A wide array of observers in the US and other Western countries believe that Petraeus could be the savior of the war efforts in Afghanistan based on his successful experience in Iraq and the skills he possesses in fighting insurgency. Petraeus wrote the army manual for fighting insurgency in Iraq and oversaw its successful implementation. He also helped set up the current strategy in Afghanistan and possesses the communication skills and a leadership style that McChrystal definitely lacked.

Although Obama was quick to maintain that the change in military leadership in Afghanistan is a change of person and not of the adopted strategy, there are those who saw the selection of Petraeus as a reflection of the desire to change the strategy itself. This is especially true with the direction of the administration to carry out a dialog with the Taliban and its desire to implement the Iraqi “Sahwa” model in Afghanistan in preparation for the proposed withdrawal. However, on June 27 Britain’s The Independent on Sunday newspaper editorial said: “the replacement of General McChrystal by General Petraeus is only the beginning of the end of the military presence of the NATO allies in Afghanistan although this truth would not be admitted for a while”.

Even if one acknowledges his success in Iraq, it would be presumptuous to say that Petraeus would be able to achieve similar results in Afghanistan. The circumstances of war in Iraq is different from Afghanistan where the rugged mountain terrains and the experience of Afghani fighters in launching attacks bleeds the human and material capabilities of the coalition forces. There are no indications to suggest that Petraeus would achieve better results than his predecessor because the true problem does not lay in the efficiency of the leadership as much as in the circumstances surrounding the operations. Bad military leadership may handicap war efforts but it is also true that good leadership alone is not enough to win a war. Petraeus himself honestly put a limit to the hopes placed on him especially with respect to the commitment to the time schedule for the withdrawal of US forces next year. During his testimony to the Senate he explained that it is “necessary to view July 2011 as the date to start the operations according to the actual situation on the ground and not as the date for the exit of the United States”.

Military experts believe that several factors are crucial for victory in Afghanistan. The first is a clear and practical view of objectives from the war. The second is a good understanding of the nature of the opponent and the operation scene. The third is to speed up efforts to prepare Afghani security forces and to train them in a manner different from before. Lastly, it is the work to complete the political, economic and security efforts inside Afghanistan without the use of excessive force especially against civilians. Experts believe that the success of General Petraeus will depend on measures such as strengthening of the Afghani security institutions and preparing them to face new challenges. There is also the need for an Afghani partner that can bear the responsibility and work in cooperation with the regional forces to ensure stability in Afghanistan.
This must happen alongside political efforts to merge the moderate members of the Taliban with the different institutions in the country. All these factors are crucial for the achievement of the desired political objectives in Afghanistan. Any other result would be a big problem for the Obama administration and could lead to the defeat of the Democrats in the Congressional and Presidential elections.