Among the many bad impressions currently being given by the United States is the perception that we only have two real generals. And it seems to have taken a while for us to realize that this number has just been halved. Until last month, we only had two generals who could claim to have taken on al-Qaida and defeated it both militarily and politically. And this was when Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal were working in tandem in Iraq. Afghanistan has proved much more resistant to their skills, whether exerted separately or together, while for making some crass comments about President Barack Obama’s “too many cooks” policy, Gen. McChrystal has now disqualified himself from taking any further part in that struggle. But did we quite appreciate, as he was relieved of command in Kabul, that this meant that he was also removed from the struggle altogether? The second-order squabble—about how many of his stars he could retain in retirement —obscured the fact that we have now lost the services of a really serious warrior.
There’s something irritating and alarming about his ending up this way, as a feather in the cap of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone. I find that most people, when asked to say what McChrystal accomplished in Baghdad, will reply vaguely that he deserves a share of credit for “the surge.” This displays an ignorance of recent history and helps to obscure the extent and degree of the loss we have just suffered.
It is almost impossible to recall the true horror of the situation that confronted the coalition forces in Iraq during the middle years of this decade. Al-Qaida was able to operate with virtual impunity—and with the assistance of large stockpiles of Baathist war materiel—in several provinces and across big swaths of Baghdad. It was able to blow up the offices of the United Nations with a huge weapons-grade bomb and to destroy the most emotionally important Shiite shrine in Iraq: the Golden Dome at Samarra. Its beheaders and video-torturers roamed freely. In some towns in Anbar province, a provisional “Islamic State of Iraq” was established, and victory parades were held, celebrating the defeat of the United States and its allies. Back in the United States itself, the demand for withdrawal from Iraq came quite close to reaching critical mass. As I tried to write at the time, this could have meant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the psychopathic killer who then had the Bin Laden franchise in Iraq, claiming to have out-fought the United States in open combat. The consequences of this—the frenzied bloodbath within Iraq, the collapse of a keystone state in the world economy, the chronic destabilization of the region, and the strengthening of ultra-fundamentalist groups everywhere—would have been infinitely worse than any defeat for our aims in Afghanistan.
I used to go to the occasional off-the-record briefing in Washington back then, and it was easy to see signs of exhaustion and bewilderment. Every now and then, though, there was a whisper of hope. The name was not supposed to be publicized, but a certain Gen. Stanley McChrystal was building a network of ruthless counter-al-Qaida fighters, both U.S. and local, who every night would fan out across Baghdad and give the enemy no rest. Not only did they break up cell after cell, but they must have become good at “turning” people as well, because Zarqawi’s whereabouts was finally discovered and, though in the end he wasn’t taken alive, he was still breathing when the soldiers entered his hut. He knew in his last minutes that he had been betrayed.
One understood by then that McChrystal had no great political talent. His dismal role in trying to muffle the story of Pat Tillman’s death in Afghanistan was sufficient proof of that. But he was a dedicated killer of al-Qaida members. He passed the informal Churchill wartime test—”Is he any good at killing Germans?” He not only inflicted severe pain and damage on the enemy, but he unmasked them—in front of their own supposed Sunni constituency—as wreckers and braggarts. It was this that laid the groundwork for the principles of the surge. One day, military history will acknowledge McChrystal for his great feat of arms.
And now he is destined for the shelf or, perhaps even worse, for a life as a consultant to the titans of the “procurement community.” Meanwhile, reports suggest that U.S. policy in Baghdad is beginning to fray as the date for withdrawal approaches. Vice President Joe Biden’s 10-minute trip to the Green Zone on July 4 appears to confirm McChrystal’s low opinion of him. Taking advantage of the many political and other uncertainties, the greatly reduced al-Qaida forces are still preparing to inflict as much misery as they can upon Iraqis, so as to thwart any attempt at a democratic or federal solution. (By this way, this in itself is proof that their vile tactics, now directed at an army that is in the process of disengagement, are not a response to “occupation.”)
Might it be salutary to ask Gen. McChrystal for one more mission? Send him back to Baghdad to help oversee the drawdown and also to continue the trouncing of those who are trying to disrupt the transition. Help pass on to the Iraqi army a cadre of battle-tested fighters, Arab and Kurdish, who have learned to take the measure of the enemy. Make it plain that further help from over the horizon is available if they ask for it. This would be a much more fitting career conclusion than the one currently offered, which has something small and dishonorable about it.