Two Presidents and Two Generals – Iraq and Afghanistan in Retrospect

By Capt Manoj (Veteran)

As Taliban takes over Afghanistan, US Military is in spotlight for their failure to win the ‘forever war’. This is to surmise the contrast in Political-Military Strategy of US in Iraq and Afghanistan–a study of 2 Wars, 2 Presidents (Bush n Obama) and 2 Generals (Petraeus n McChrystal).


Clausewitz said “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” Military Strategy flows from a clear political direction. It is interesting to contrast the results of American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan and how the Military achieved different results based on Political direction and backing.

Iraq in 2007, when General Petraeus, took command, the situation was grim. Increasing sectarian violence had led to an escalation of killings of civilians in Iraq, with up to 150 corpses being found daily in Baghdad.

General David Petraeus

Iraq appeared to be sliding out of control toward civil war or disintegration, and the US appeared to be headed inexorably toward defeat— another Vietnam.

Popular sentiment held that the best course of action was to cut US losses and disengage from a fight they were losing. General Casey, the outgoing commander, had supported a gradual drawdown of U.S. forces and a handoff of security tasks to Iraqi forces even as the situation got worse.

The lessons from Iraq were clear, Political-Military Strategy has to be in sync.

Yet by the time General Petraeus turned over command in September of 2008, he had achieved a turnaround in Iraq that seemed almost miraculous. He led “the surge” that achieved successes that were unimaginable 19 months before. Gen Petraeus believed there needed to be “a surge in four areas: not just the military, but also the civilian side of the U.S. government, the Iraqi forces, and Iraqi political will”.

To surmount the U.S. intragovernmental challenges in Iraq was dependent on how well General Petraeus was able to work with the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq- Crocker. Crocker was astute enough to recognize that although he was formally in charge of the diplomatic and political aspects of U.S. policy in Iraq, the U.S. military wielded enormous influence and power. They worked together as great team.

General Petraeus had excellent rapport with President Bush. He personally briefed President Bush, making his recommendations to the President unfiltered. President Bush approved the ‘Surge’ recommendations, which essentially were to continue the surge strategy and gradually draw down military forces, but only as the situation in Iraq would permit.

General Petraeus’s and Ambassador Crocker’s performance during the Congressional hearings received generally favourable reviews, and they were successful in controlling the size and speed of the drawdown of U.S. forces until at least March 2008. Buying the time to continue the surge strategy was no small accomplishment and gave them 6 more months to achieve the progress on political reconciliation that so far had been elusive.

Progress continued in the fall of 2007. By December 2007 in Dora in southern Baghdad, one of the Al Qaeda strongholds in the city and one of the most violent areas, Iraqi deaths had dropped to one-tenth of the previous levels and attacks against U.S. troops had completely stopped.

Bush met with Petraeus and Crocker in Kuwait in January 2008 and made it clear that he would support keeping the troop levels they believed they needed. He had then stated to the press, “My attitude is, if [Petraeus] didn’t want to continue the drawdown, that’s fine with me, in order to make sure we succeed. I said to the general, ‘If you want to slow her down, fine; it’s up to you.’ (Strong Political backing)

Petraeus may not have brought the Iraq war to its conclusion, but what he did accomplish will surely be enshrined in the annals of U.S. military history and counterinsurgency warfare. Petraeus gave Iraq a chance to climb out of its civil war and America a chance to redeem itself for the errors it made there.

The lessons from Iraq were clear, Political-Military Strategy has to be in sync. The Military Commander on Ground needs the backing of the Political leadership to succeed.

Now let us shift to Afghanistan, US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and its mission was to catch Osama Bin Laden (OBL). The invasion was successful even though the US forces could not catch OBL in Tora Bora as they were not allowed by US Govt to block his escape by deploying in Pakistan’s tribal areas. An opportunity missed due lack of political support and clearance. OBL was later killed in a bold action by US Navy Seals inside Pakistan when cleared by Obama.

Let’s now go to 2009, Barack Obama announced that year “We have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” He ordered another 21,000 troops to Kabul, the largest increase since the war began in 2001. He also fired Gen. David McKiernan and replaced him Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

It was the first time a top general had been relieved from duty during wartime in more than 50 years. Distrust of Generals?

It was the first time a top general had been relieved from duty during wartime in more than 50 years (Distrust of Generals?).

McChrystal was a Special Forces Officer and an Iraq War hero where his forces were responsible for the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The general first encountered Obama a week after he took office. McChrystal thought Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the roomful of military brass (poor personal chemistry).

“It was a 10-minute photo op,” says an adviser to McChrystal. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his F**king war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed” (bad start).

McChrystal dismissed the counterterrorism strategy being advocated by Vice President Biden as “shortsighted,” saying it would lead to a state of “Chaos-istan.”

After arriving in Afghanistan, the General conducted his own policy review and its conclusion was dire: If we didn’t send another 40,000 troops – swelling the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan by nearly half – we were in danger of “mission failure.” The review got leaked to Press. The White House was furious. McChrystal, they felt, was trying to bully Obama, opening him up to charges of being weak on national security unless he did what the general wanted.

He was advised by White House Staff not to present troop increases numbers to “defeat the Taliban”, but to “degrade” them. Some White House Staff felt that McChrystal should be fired for insubordination for disclosing information that he should have said only in private to the President of the United States. Somehow McChrystal not only survived this episode but Obama gave him 30,000 additional troops.

In one of his speeches, McChrystal dismissed the counterterrorism strategy being advocated by Vice President Biden as “shortsighted,” saying it would lead to a state of “Chaos-istan.” The remarks earned him a smackdown from the President himself, who summoned the general to a terse private meeting aboard Air Force One. The message to McChrystal seemed clear: STFU, and keep a lower profile.

Then more trouble followed, an article “The Runaway General”, appearing in Rolling Stone magazine reported that  McChrystal and his staff mocked civilian government officials, including Joe Biden, National Security Advisor James L. Jones, US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry, and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke.

Too soothe ruffled feathers, McChrystal called Vice-President Biden to apologize and issued a written apology. However, Obama summoned McChrystal to attend in person the president’s monthly security team meeting at the White House in lieu of attending via secure video teleconference. During a meeting with President Obama, McChrystal tendered his resignation, which the President accepted.

After McChrystal’s dismissal, the US Military lost its voice in Afghanistan and the military was essentially doing a holding mission waiting for it to be recalled back. The experience in Iraq and Afghanistan highlights the importance of sync between political and military strategy and good communication between the political leadership and the military. We in India have our experience in 1962 war with China when the political and military leadership did not deliver the results.

Gen Petraeus went on to become CIA Director but had to resign in wake of an extra-marital affair. He is regarded as one of the top four Generals in US History. Gen McChrystal was appointed to a head a new advisory board to support military families, an initiative led by First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden and in 2016 he rejected Trump’s offer to be his running mate.

By Capt Manoj (Veteran)

Manoj Rawat is a former Indian naval Captain and Director of Naval Operations at the Naval Headquarters, New Delhi. He has years of experience on front­line warships and senior operational and policy positions in the Ministry of Defence. Rawat is an alumnus of National Defence Academy, Singapore Aviation Academy, Indonesian Command and Staff College, and College of Defence Management.

Other articles by Capt Manoj, click here.

Similar articles:

Pakistan behind attack in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, India must take note

World War III Has Begun and We Are Unaware

Operation Khukri- City Under Siege!

South India’s ancient connection to Balochistan, the Brahui language

Leave a Reply