President Obama's pick for a key role in implementing his new Afghanistan strategy as commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan is Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal of the U.S. Army. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate Wednesday. The general has spent most of his career in combat special operations, but officials say he has also become an expert in the complex warfare of counterinsurgency.
The Obama administration has shifted the U.S. national security focus firmly toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the president says his top priority is to deter, defeat and destroy al-Qaida and related groups, including the Taliban. To spearhead that effort, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced in May that command of the U.S. and NATO effort in Afghanistan would change, a year ahead of schedule.
"If there were to be a change, this is the right time to make the change, at a time when we are at the beginning of the implementation of a new strategy," he said.
Gates said he wants "fresh thinking, fresh eyes" on the problem, and that General McChrystal is the right man for the job.
"That's the challenge that we give to the new leadership," he said. "How do we do better? What new ideas do you have? What fresh thinking do you have? Are there different ways of accomplishing our goals? How can we be more effective? That's what we expect from them."
McChrystal's experience is mainly in the type of secret and often violent military special operations that involve seeking out and attacking key enemy targets. He was credited with leading the successful effort to capture Saddam Hussein and to kill the head of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
But the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, has worked closely with McChrystal, working on ideas for Afghanistan and other tough challenges, and he says the general has developed other skills as well.
"His background is much deeper and much broader than that," said Admiral Mullen. "And I've been privileged to work with him over the better part of the last year and seen that, you know, the broadness and the depth that go far beyond just high-end special-operations skills."
"Mr. Chairman, Senator McCain, members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you," said General McChrystal.
General McChrystal himself tried to demonstrate that at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"In counterinsurgency, how you operate, the impact of civilian casualties, collateral damages, cultural insensitivity and the inherent complexities involved in separating insurgents from the population often determine success or failure,"he said. "If defeating an insurgent formation produces popular resentment, the victory is hollow and unsustainable."
McChrystal also defended himself against allegations of prisoner abuse by his troops in Iraq in 2003, and said he reduced the use of harsh, but legal, techniques as soon as he took command.
The former deputy chief of the U.S. Army, General Jack Keane, who has continued to have significant influence on national security policy since his retirement six years ago, endorsed the McChrystal appointment.
"He has a clear feel for what it takes to conduct this kind of warfare, and to do it successfully," he said. "He's got the right attributes for it. He's innovative. He's creative. He can deal with a high degree of uncertainty."
Even though officials have been quick to praise the current commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, Keane says this was a good time to make a change.
"There hasn't been as much progress as people had expected there would be in Afghanistan in applying the intellectual framework, getting the strategy right, setting the conditions for success in 2010, which is probably the first time we'll ever start to see some measure of progress," he said. "I think people just realized we may not get there unless we put a new leader in charge, and have him start out with the new strategy and the new team to work with."
At the Senate hearing, General McChrystal outlined what he hopes to achieve in Afghanistan during the next 18 to 24 months.
"I think we achieve a level of security that allows each of the areas, to include those currently challenged by the Taliban, to bring in governance that is maybe locally based, but it is linked to the national government," he said. "So when they think of their governmental chain, they may think locally and it may be tribal in a village, but when it goes back up the chain it is absolutely recognized as going up through the district, province and then to the national government."
General McChrystal said if that does not happen, Afghanistan will likely descend into civil war, once again.
"I don't believe that the Taliban would take over Afghanistan," he said. "I think it would go back to what it was before 2001 and that would be an ongoing civil war between different factions. I believe that al-Qaida would have the ability to move back into Afghanistan and I cannot imagine why they would not do that."
The stakes are high for General McChrystal. His success or failure, along with NATO allies, Afghan forces and civilian agencies, will largely determine the future of Afghanistan and will strongly impact the future stability of Pakistan and the entire region. And it will also have a significant impact on the political future of President Obama, the man who laid out the new strategy to turn the difficult Afghan situation around and chose McChrystal to implement it.