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Gen. David Petraeus listens to President Barack Obama announce him as the successor of US commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Gen. David Petraeus listens to President Barack Obama announce him as the successor of US commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Nicholas Kamm/FP/Getty Images
More On Petraeus
Gen. McChrystal is out, but is Petraeus the answer? Read why Kori Schake of Foreign Policy only sees more problems down the road and why Stephen M. Walt says the change isn't so significant.
Steven Metz is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.
The cliche contains a kernel of truth: the predominance of the political and the psychological distinguishes counterinsurgency from conventional warfare. Physical effects — what the military calls "kinetic" action — matter less than intangible and mostly psychological outcomes. The complexity of all this cannot be overstated. As a precondition for success, a commander and his organization need to cultivate different perceptions and expectations among multiple and very different audiences. They must persuade the enemy and its supporters that the insurgency has been doomed to failure but also that laying down one's arms and surrendering offers honorable and realistic options. They must convince local allies — in this case the Afghan people, government, and security forces — that the United States will support them, given certain conditions but regardless of consequence. And they must convince the American people and their elites that the counterinsurgency deserves public support and, indeed, will culminate in something other than a bloody and protracted stalemate or defeat.
Put simply, a strategic communicator ought to know how to communicate. Some military leaders, even supremely talented combat commanders like General McChrystal, have been tested and found wanting in this regard. While there were already rumors swirling within the officer corps to this effect, the explosive Rolling Stone article makes this truth plain for all to see. The command climate at McChrystal's headquarters was keyed to fight a war, but hardly attuned to the psychological and political elements of strategic level counterinsurgency.
It will be some time before we know exactly why this was (if we ever do). Perhaps it reflected General McChrystal's background in Special Forces. The Army's Special Forces remain, as their name implies, a breed apart. They include some of the most talented and intellectual members of the service, but they operate far from the glare of the media spotlight — illumination shells rather than klieg lights Theirs is a world of shadows, not public affairs. They leave perception management to others. As a rule, they tend not to know what to do with journalists, other than to avoid them.
This is as it should be. But perception management is the issue on the table in Afghanistan. Invariably, trouble arises when a senior commander moves from the world of shadows and its emphasis on killing to the showy world of strategic communications and public relations. Crossing the line becomes a nearly impossible mission. Simple human nature suggests that a military commander, like anyone else, will concentrate his efforts on the activities and through the prism to which he is well-versed, skilled, and accustomed. For a Special Forces officer, this means thinking, and killing, at the local level rather than managing and manipulating perceptions at the strategic and political levels.
General David Petraeus, by contrast, has already demonstrated his aptitude for counterinsurgency, at every level and across the board. While the consensus narrative credits the troop "surge" for Iraq's turn around in 2007, Petraeus's ability to telegraph appropriate and simultaneous messages to the Iraqi insurgents, Iraqi population, Iraqi leadership, and, more important, to the America public and Congress was nearly without precedent. General McChrystal was one of America's foremost warfighters, but General Petraeus counts as one of its foremost strategic leaders. And that, in the end, will be what a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan requires. At the U.S. headquarters in Afghanistan, a new command climate is about to emerge from the old. It will be better than what went before.