McChrystal Calls Marjah a Bleeding Ulcer

BY Herschel Smith
6 years ago


Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top allied military commander in Afghanistan, sat gazing at maps of Marjah as a Marine battalion commander asked him for more time to oust Taliban fighters from a longtime stronghold in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

“You’ve got to be patient,” Lt. Col. Brian Christmas told McChrystal. “We’ve only been here 90 days.”

“How many days do you think we have before we run out of support by the international community?” McChrystal replied.

A charged silence settled in the stuffy, crowded chapel tent at the Marine base in the Marjah district.

“I can’t tell you, sir,” the tall, towheaded, Fort Bragg, N.C., native finally answered.

“I’m telling you,” McChrystal said. “We don’t have as many days as we’d like.”

The operation in Marjah is supposed to be the first blow in a decisive campaign to oust the Taliban from their spiritual homeland in adjacent Kandahar province, one that McChrystal had hoped would bring security and stability to Marjah and begin to convey an “irreversible sense of momentum” in the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan.

Instead, a tour last week of Marjah and the nearby Nad Ali district, during which McClatchy Newspapers had rare access to meetings between McChrystal and top Western strategists, drove home the hard fact that President Obama’s plan to begin pulling American troops out of Afghanistan in July 2011 is colliding with the realities of the war.

There aren’t enough U.S. and Afghan forces to provide the security that’s needed to win the loyalty of wary locals. The Taliban have beheaded Afghans who cooperate with foreigners in a creeping intimidation campaign. The Afghan government hasn’t dispatched enough local administrators or trained police to establish credible governance, and now the Taliban have begun their anticipated spring offensive.

“This is a bleeding ulcer right now,” McChrystal told a group of Afghan officials, international commanders in southern Afghanistan and civilian strategists who are leading the effort to oust the Taliban fighters from Helmand.

“You don’t feel it here,” he said during a 10-hour front-line strategy review, “but I’ll tell you, it’s a bleeding ulcer outside.”

Throughout the day, McChrystal expressed impatience with the pace of operations, echoing the mounting pressure he’s under from his civilian bosses in Washington and Europe to start showing progress.

Is this a bad joke or a sorry episode of The Twilight Zone?  It’s a serious question.  Names are supplied, so the author apparently doesn’t mind us fact-checking him.  Is this report for real?  Did McChrystal really say those things and interact with another officer in this manner?  Seriously?  This is an important milestone in the campaign.  Apparently, we now know the real expectations for the campaign.  No one can seriously continue to claim that the withdrawal date is a mere ruse for the American public.  They really believe it.  They really intend for it to obtain.

Did General McChrystal not cover the basics of classical counterinsurgency doctrine with his civilian bosses?  Did he or any of his reports mislead the administration into believing that Marjah or any other town in Afghanistan would be pacified in 90 days?  Did he or his reports – or anyone in the administration – really believe that this government ex machina we brought to Marjah would work?

Forgetting classical counterinsurgency doctrine which normally presumes that COIN will take ten or even more years, for anyone who has been listening and watching for the past several years, the most successful part of the campaign in Iraq, i.e., the Anbar Province, took about three and a half years from the inception of Operation Al Fajr until late 2007 when Fallujah was finally stable at the conclusion of Operation Alljah.

Security in Ramadi preceded Fallujah slightly, Haditha preceded Ramadi by a little and Al Qaim was secure before Haditha.  But the whole of the Anbar Province took over three years and the efforts of the best fighting force on earth, the U.S. Marine Corps, in which more than 1000 Marines perished and many more were wounded or maimed.  No one in his right mind would claim that the U.S. Marine Corps did not understand or implement a successful strategy in the Anbar Province, where the Marines had to fight their way through an indigenous insurgency (finally co-opting their services) to get to the 80-100 foreign fighters per month flowing across the Syrian border.  Iraq is still not entirely stable, and its security will be a direct function of the extent to which we confront Iran in its quest for regional hegemony.

This report is so bizarre, so jaw dropping, and so disturbing, that it naturally leads to many other very important questions.  Does McChrystal believe that the COIN operations will be successfully concluded within a year or even a year plus a few months?  Did he communicate that to the administration?  If so, does the administration believe it?  Was time frame ever brought up?  Did the administration simply lay down expectations without reference to historical precedent for successful COIN campaigns and without asking General McChrystal?

The notion that Marjah is a bleeding ulcer is preposterous when compared to Ramadi in 2006 or Fallujah in 2007.  Someone or some group is not thinking clearly, and this lack of clarity may be the doom of the campaign when it finally becomes apparent to everyone else that we are in the “long war.”  It will not be finished for a long time to come, even if America stands down.  The enemy gets the final vote.

  • jonesgp1996

    A little more than halfway down the page is a narrative about the President’s decision to begin more than just token withdrawals within 18 months, and he gets concurrence from Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen, and General Petraeus. It also states that the President does NOT intend to pursue a “nationwide counterinsurgency.” If this retelling of the facts is actually how the decision was made, then it would appear that GEN McChrystal was not consulted on the 18-month deadline (as you suggest). That would be in keeping with what seems to be President Obama’s preferred method of dealing with the the chain-of-command (top down), as opposed to President Bush’s style, which often involved communicating directly with commanders at a lower echelon (and bypassing the combatant commander, for example).

  • Casca

    I wonder if Lt Col Christmas is any relation of Lt Gen George Christmas, one of the four heroes of the battle of Hue? Oh yes, there were a lot more than four heroes there, but these guys got the big hardware. I like that bully move McC pulled on him. What is it Einstein said? “If your conclusions don’t fit the facts, change your facts.”

  • Warbucks

    Captain, This has been one of your most intriguing posts. Your link to “Secretes from Inside the Obama War Room,” is a worthwhile read: , From The Promise: President Obama, Year One, by Jonathan Alter. To be published on May 18 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. © 2010 by Jonathan Alter.

    The 2011 Election Cycle is being formally joined by the Obama Administration with its release. Who-boxed-who-in-first? Obama the campaigner for office, boxed in Obama the President in office with his first reality check.

    “From The Promise: President Obama, Year One”, is more properly seen as the left speaking to its own base to appease the growing discontent within the ranks and spray calming waters on various hot-spot smoldering embers…… the unspoken treatise: “That Republican General lied to me in all my briefings; he must have political ambitions of their own.”

    Let’s be clear, you can’t box-in hot air in an open system. Candidate Obama was open and free to say whatever he wanted as candidate. While I do believe reality’s time lines can be changed, Obama created his own undeliverable vision and is famously now, once again, enabling the buck to be passed.

    It’s simply a first act prop in the scenery of part of the larger stage setting the left and he, aided by the unseen hand and world power managers, are masterful at creating.

    Peace was never the goal. Power retention and control always remains the objective.

  • TSAlfabet

    Frankly, I am more disappointed and disheartened by General McCrystal and Petraeus than by Obama.

    I expect Obama to screw things up. I read the Newsweek article linked above. It is well worth reading (though sickening). I can absolutely believe alot of the details in the article.

    To me, bottom line, a fundamental duty of a military commander is to provide his superiors with the God’s honest truth about the situation he faces and honest advice in line with that. Let the chips fall where they may.

    In the case of McCrystal, he originally said it would take 80,000 (or more?) troops to turn things around in A-stan. And there were many posts and discussions on this blog back in 2009 about that very issue. Petraeus agreed with that outlook as well.

    Regardless of whatever political calculations were going on with Obama and whether his feelings were hurt or he felt like people were trying to “box him in” as Newsweek puts it, McCrystal and Petraeus had an absolute duty to tell the C-in-C that a 40,000 troop ‘compromise’ with (as Newsweek puts it) a hard and fast deadline of July 2011 to exit would not and could not work. (And if the Generals believed that victory could be achieved with only 40,000 additional troops and a July 2011 withdrawal date, then they are either crazy or possess some ultra-secret weapon that will magically win the war).

    If Obama refused to listen to their expert advice that the proposed mini-surge would not work, then they should have resigned their commissions then and there rather than enable a deluded commander in chief to foist a hare-brained, unwinnable strategy upon our armed forces which would necessarily entail the needless and futile death and maiming of thousands for nothing.

    That is where we are at, gentlemen. We are left to read the McClatchy article in helpless despair that, as the Captain noted, makes the obvious point that there are not enough Marines to implement a successful COIN strategy in Helmand (or Kandahar or anywhere else). And not enough time either.

    How dare McCrystal upbraid his subordinate officer regarding the amount of time. It is pure cowardice for McCrystal to vent his frustrations on Lt. Col. Christmas (who cannot answer back). If McCrystal is frustrated about the unrealistic time deadlines, he can only blame himself. He should have made it clear to Obama when he had the chance that a July 2011 deadline is completely unworkable and he would not put his soldiers and marines in an unwinnable fight.

  • jonesgp1996

    TSAlfabet: when would GEN McChrystal have told the president that the withdrawal deadline was unrealistic? The Newsweek article implies that he wasn’t part of that decision-making process.

    Also, what good would it have done for generals to resign? People often say, “If they don’t agree with a policy, they should resign.” Where would that get us? Good generals resigning until we find one that is a “yes man”? I’d rather have smart, creative leaders doing more with less than a sycophant from the “B team”.

  • TSAlfabet

    Good questions, JP.

    In my view, a general officer has an ongoing duty to speak clearly and frankly to his superiors. What we clearly have in the article excerpted by the Captain is McCrystal whining and complaining to a JUNIOR officer about a problem that the junior officer can do nothing about. The only one who could do something about it is McChrystal by going to Petraeus and/or POTUS (through proper channels) and communicating the truth. If he has, in fact, already done this, then he does not need to vent his spleen on a junior officer.

    As for the Newsweek article– to the extent you can believe anything in Newsweek– the article said that the President asked Petraeus whether he was OK with the so-called compromise plan before it was put into effect. Petraeus allegedly agreed to it (at which point, Newsweek crows, that Obama had oh-so-cleverly outfoxed the military and put them in a corner if they later tried to squawk about the July 2011 withdrawal date). It is highly unlikely that Petraeus would not have gotten input of any kind from his top commander in A-stan before agreeing to the withdrawal date. Again, this might all be standard Newsweek B.S.

    As for resigning, I suppose this is a two-part question: 1) Is there *ever* a circumstance for resigning, and; 2) if so, was this such a situation? Reasonable people can debate this. Suffice it to say that I affirm both questions in this case.

    You ask what good would it do for generals to resign? In this particular instance, resigning would have deprived Obama of what he desperately needs: political cover with the American people for his half-baked, half-hearted policies. When it comes to winning in A-stan (as opposed to merely making the appearance of an effort), it was clear to Petraeus and to McChrystal that 40,000 troops to be withdrawn in July 2011 did not have a ghost of a chance. I do not know of any credible military mind that thought the plan was workable, do you?

    By signing on to this excuse for a strategy, Petraeus and McChrystal gave POTUS the cover he needed to move forward and ensure that many good, American soldiers and Marines will die for nothing. Because, in the end, you and the rest of us know exactly where the Afghan campaign is heading: failure, disgrace, retreat and, eventually, helicopters out of Saigon. Petraeus and McChrystal had the chance to prevent that by refusing to sign on to this obvious disaster.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,General McChrystal and was published May 26th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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