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Will the Afghan War Suffer From McChrystal’s Ouster?

by Greg on June 24, 2010

What’s lost with Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s ouster? The most innovative battlefield commander the U.S. has ever had, say former colleagues who worked with him there and in the super-secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

A commander who truly grasped both the value added of new sensors and information networks and intuitively understood the organizational changes required of a hidebound military to best exploit it.

During his five years at JSOC and his truncated command of ISAF, McChrystal flattened hierarchies, empowered subordinates and everywhere pushed a freer flow of information between operators and analysts, between commanders and their units and even between oftentimes distrustful allies.

“He had better battlefield situational awareness than any other commander out there,” one former operator told me. McChrystal, who spent much of his career in the “black” special operations world, understood that the best weapon to fight terrorist and insurgent networks was another network, and he put those networks in place in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world.

Those personal networks McChrystal built up during his time in the black SOF world, “special mission unit” commanders that he knew and had worked with for years, he brought with him to Afghanistan; some who still commanded SOF units, others who now commanded units among the general purpose force.

Those crucial human networks were bolstered by a legion of analysts and techno geeks who were given the most advanced IT systems in the inventory by virtue of McChrystal’s control of a near limitless budget and ability to procure outside the military’s traditional acquisition system that operates at a glacial pace.

McChrystal knew the military has plenty of “shooters”; where he really worked to change the organization was not the pointy end of the spear, but rather the “shaft of the spear,” a former colleague of his told me. He sent his liaison officers all over the battlefield, not only to mine information from often widely dispersed units, but also to share information his command received from higher, national level intelligence sources, such as CIA informants and NSA signals intel.

Before McChrystal took over ISAF, there was a huge reluctance among U.S. units to share information with NATO allies. He put an abrupt end to that practice and pushed information out to the point of pissing off a lot of people.

“McChrystal was all about information flow,” the former colleague told me, “he wanted his command to function like a Google or Microsoft, always innovating, always moving information.” And, unlike most commanders in the conventional military, he had the resources to do it.

The huge jump, some described it as “orders of magnitude,” in high-value targeting effectiveness McChrystal achieved in Iraq and then Afghanistan may never be known, it’s all top secret. Those who do talk about it in do so in generalities and hushed tones with awe and a respect for a commander who they say instinctively grasped warfighting in this new world.

Will incoming ISAF commander Gen. David Petraeus be able to maintain those networks McChrystal built? It’s going to be difficult, I’m told, as those networks are human, not technological. He’s likely the only person that stands a chance of building on the work McChrystal has already done, as Petraeus mentored McChrystal and the two had a very close personal and professional relationship.

Some of McChrystal’s closest cadre, seasoned veterans from America’s wars, will leave Afghanistan and will suffer professionally because of a magazine article. Those who remain will respect Petraeus and accept the change, while never forgetting the contributions of Stanley McChrystal.

– Greg Grant

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