McChrystal's Exit Puts Military-Civilian Ties In Focus

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates (L) and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen conduct a press briefing on the replacement of U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the war in Afghanistan June 24, 2010 in Arlington, Virginia.

Two days after President Obama replaced Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander of the war in Afghanistan, with Gen. David Petraeus, the focus now is on how to move forward with the war strategy that depends on military officers and their civilian partners working together.

The nation's top military officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, arrives in Afghanistan on Friday. His mission: to reassure U.S. troops about the change in command there.

Two days after President Obama replaced Gen. Stanley McChrystal with Gen. David Petraeus, the focus now is on how to move forward with the war strategy that depends on military officers and their civilian partners working together.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended Obama's decision to replace McChrystal. Sitting next to Gates, his civilian boss, during a news conference Thursday, Mullen's message could not have been clearer.

"We do not have the right, nor should we ever assume the prerogative, to cast doubt upon the ability or mock the motives of our civilian leaders, elected or appointed," he said. "I think it is vital for us to remember that if we lose their trust and confidence for any reason, it's time to go."

McChrystal lost his job because the comments he and his aides made -- which were quoted in Rolling Stone magazine -- revealed a rift between him and his staff on the one side and the civilian leaders who define the war policy on the other.

Military-Diplomatic Ties

One of the people singled out: U.S. Ambassador in Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry.

The tension between McChrystal and the man who was supposed to be his partner was a poorly kept secret. As McChrystal became the primary U.S. contact with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the relationship between the general and the ambassador fractured.

"The importance of one mission, one team cannot be overemphasized in the counterinsurgency operations," says Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as U.S. ambassador in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

He says the partnership between the top diplomat and the top commander is a precondition for success, especially in counterinsurgency, a strategy where the lines dividing military missions from civilian ones are often blurred.

He points to his own experience working alongside military commanders in both war zones. In Afghanistan, Khalilzad and his counterpart even made sure their offices were next to each other.

"We met at least once a day. Sometimes there were obvious tensions, clearly, but I think at the end of the day we recognized that this was more important than any one of us or any one of the institutions," he said.

A Good Example

There is one recent example of a military-civilian relationship that most experts agree was exceptional: Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker worked together in Iraq and oversaw the strategy that became known as the surge.

In 2008, Gates called the Petraeus-Crocker team a "superb model of military-civilian partnership, and one that should be studied and emulated for years to come."

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) went even further, suggesting that they should be brought together for one more tour.

"We might suggest that consideration be given to reuniting the Crocker-Petraeus team," he said.

That may be wishful thinking by McCain, as Crocker is retired from the Foreign Service. Still, McCain and others on Capitol Hill say while McChrystal had to go, more change is needed.

"We still have concerns about the civilian side of it, and the nonmilitary side of this equation," he said.

Khalilzad agrees.

"This is an opportunity to see if a team that is functional can be put together, with Gen. Petraeus in the lead," he said. "If not, what other changes need to be made -- because a lot needs to happen in a short time given that time line of July of next year."

That's when Obama has said he wants to begin withdrawing some U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Doing so could depend on whether the new military command in Afghanistan and the U.S. diplomats there can make peace with each other and take the fight to the enemy. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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