BOOK REVIEW: ‘My Share of the Task’

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By Gen. Stanley McChrystal
Portfolio, $29.95, 464 pages

By Fred Kaplan
Simon & Schuster, $28, 432 pages

Counterterrorism (CT in military argot) and counterinsurgency (COIN) are two very different things that are sometimes used interchangeably by politicians and journalists not familiar with the national security community’s often confusing tribal language. CT is killing or capturing terrorists and breaking up their networks. COIN is an attempt to wean a local population away from insurgents and to convince those people to support, or at least tolerate, their own government. Each requires different skill sets, and both are things that a host nation should do once it is able. That is not always possible in the early stage of the conflict; and this was the case in Afghanistan and Iraq, albeit for different reasons. The two books that this review addresses are about men who mastered each of these skills in Iraq, but who found Afghanistan a much more difficult challenge.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s book, “My Share of the Task,” is an autobiography. For most of his career, the author was a fairly conventional soldier, but he had shown an early interest in unconventional operations. As a qualified airborne officer, and a graduate of the Army’s Ranger Course, he sought out a chance to gain an assignment in the elite Ranger Regiment, and eventually was assigned to the even more elite Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) counterterrorist force, which he rose to command. In Iraq, he wore two hats as commander of JSOC and its Iraqi Manifestation, TF 714. As the counterterrorist commander in Iraq, he transformed his unit from a team of rivals into a network that combined intelligence with direct capture-kill operations and was responsible for the eventual capture of Saddam Hussein and the elimination of the notorious Abu Musab al Zarqawi.

However, as a thoughtful military professional, Gen. McChrystal realized that the CT effort was only a small part of the greater COIN effort that Gen. David H. Petraeus eventually would lead. That is a good segue into Fred Kaplan’s book, “The Insurgents,” which describes how a small group of “insurgents” changed the U.S. Army from a primarily conventional Cold War-oriented force into a thinking — and more adaptive — organization. At this writing, there is a counter-reformation at work by more conventional thinkers, but the revolution probably changed the Army for a long time to come.

Full disclosure here, I have a bit part in the Kaplan book, and I have tried not to let it affect my evaluation. This book is about the transformation of the Army, not about a broken-down old Marine. It’s a warts-and-all account of how people like Gen. Petraeus, Lt. Col. John Nagl, Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster and others strove to get the Army to readopt counterinsurgency doctrine, which the Army had dropped like a hot potato after the debacle of Vietnam. They succeeded in doing so in Iraq, but suffered a setback in Afghanistan. Here, both books converge.

Gen. McChrystal took over the war in Afghanistan when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates fired his predecessor. He moved from CT to COIN, and the move from the largely tactical level of war to the realm of strategy was not smooth. However, Gen. McChrystal was smart enough to know that he was in a dogfight. He describes Americans dealing with Afghans as akin to high school students walking into a Mafia bar. I always had that feeling in my meetings with Afghans, but lack the general’s gift of metaphor to express it.

When Gen. McChrystal was, in turn, forced to resign over remarks that his staff made to a disingenuous Rolling Stone reporter, Gen. Petraeus took a demotion to replace him. Like all of us who had success in Iraq, Gen. Petraeus found Afghanistan to be a much harder slog. When he left after a year, he had made progress, but not as much as he would have liked.

Of the two books, Gen. McChrystal’s likely will sell better since readers will hope to get some insights on administration infighting. They will be disappointed. Gen. McChrystal is the consummate professional even in retirement and refuses to deal in dirt. The Kaplan book actually has more earthy information about the human foibles of the participants, but lay readers may find the prodigious detail a tad intimidating. However, “The Insurgents” likely will become a must-read for military and national security professionals.

In trying to help a host nation fight an insurgency, the host government must want the same things we do and share a common vision. Gen. McChrystal, Gen. Petraeus and the rest of us found that wasn’t the case in Afghanistan, and it may never be.

Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel, is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He has been a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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