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McChrystal row threatens Afghan strategy

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 22 June 2010

As violence and casualty numbers rise in Afghanistan, Nato can ill-afford question marks over Sir Sherard Cowper Coles and General Stanley McChrystal, two of the leading decision-makers, writes Colonel Richard Kemp for Channel 4 News.

General Stanley McChrystal (Credit: Getty)

Britain's special envoy in Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper Coles, has unexpectedly departed. Speculation is rife over his disillusionment with the strategy and talk of clashes with US and Nato officials over his approach. He has advocated greater inclusion of the Taliban and other insurgents in talks about the future of the country.

Potentially even more serious is General Stanley McChrystal's recall to Washington following comments made to Rolling Stone magazine.

It is entirely right that generals robustly question and challenge their political masters. Indeed Winston Churchill argued that those of his commanders who were not prepared to fight him were unlikely to effectively fight the enemy.

But this should always be behind closed doors. Public criticism at this level serves only to undermine confidence. And the top Nato commander must not only command the campaign but he must also command the confidence of his subordinates, superiors and politicians across the allied nations. 

More even than in a conventional war, where military gains and losses are far more tangible, confidence in the strategy and the leadership are critically important. This is particularly true of General McChrystal, who is hugely respected in the US, Nato militaries and in Afghanistan, and is so personally associated with the current strategy.

General McChrystal has admitted to poor judgement. He is a man under unimaginable pressure, with responsibility for the lives of huge numbers of Nato troops and Afghan civilians; and the future of Afghanistan as well as to an extent the Obama administration in his hands.

This is not the first time General McChrystal has been in hot water with Washington - he was admonished by President Obama following a speech in London last year thought to be calculated to pressurize the president to accede to his demands over troop numbers.

Assuming the general doesn't resign, will President Obama sack him? In 1951 Harry Truman fired perhaps the greatest general in American history, Douglas MacArthur following his criticism of Washington's Korean war policy.

There are undoubtedly grounds for dismissal, as there were for MacArthur. And as with every senior commander, General McChrystal is not irreplaceable.

But President Obama would be wise to consider whether embarrassing fault-lines within the US leadership would be widened into full-blown fissures across the alliance at a time when cohesion is most needed.

Colonel Richard kemp is a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan.

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