Did McChrystal’s Command Recommendations Herald His New Afghanistan Job?

Created: May 11, 2009 16:09 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

One more thing really quickly about Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s ascension to commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. On Friday, I blogged about changes in the command structure in Afghanistan emanating from, among other places, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s review of Afghanistan strategy. What I should have noted, in retrospect, is that McChrystal chaired that review. I don’t know this for certain by any stretch, but chances are that was an audition for the job.

According to this Wall Street Journal piece from Friday, one of McChrystal’s recommendations as part of that review is particularly interesting:

A military official familiar with the Pentagon’s recent moves said Gen. McChrystal, a former Green Beret, was picked to head the Afghan task force because of his experience in Iraq. There, as commander of special operations forces, he set up a system that sent troops back to the same neighborhoods when they returned to the theater — something the task force has suggested replicating in Afghanistan with general infantry soldiers.

On the one hand, that seems like an intuitively good idea. Everyone who’s ever deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan talks about having to spend their first few months of their tour learning the intricacies of their terrain — both the physical space and the more-complex “human terrain” of personages and their histories and interactions — another few months acting on it, and the final months transitioning out of it while showing a replacement unit the ropes. Why not just have units return to their old areas of responsibility?

On the other hand, two things. First, if you mess up, your return to the area may look to the locals like the mess-up is going to be institutionalized. And second, it’s at least possible that returning to the same place might cause a “Groundhog Day” effect in troops, dropping their morale levels off by making their tours seem repetitive? I’m not trying to adjudicate the question, just raising it. I can also see troops’ morale levels rising (within reason) because they’re returning to a part of the war that’s at least familiar.

In any event, that sort of thinking suggests that McChrystal has bought into the “human terrain” counterinsurgency concept, which holds that you have to get to know the locals intimately if you expect anything resembling success. Special Operators don’t often get enough credit for insights like that.