McChrystal gazing - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 28 June 2010

McChrystal gazing

Sacked US commander in Afghanistan, Lt Gen Stanley McChrystal. A soldiers' soldier, McChrystal was legendary for many things: his intellect, his integrity and --- not least --- for sleeping just 4 hours a day; eating just one meal; and starting his day with an 11 km run.

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 29th June 10

The unceremonious dismissal last week by US President Barak Obama of his military commander in Afghanistan, Lt Gen Stanley McChrystal, should be carefully studied in this country. In contrast to India, where civil-military relations remain mired in wary mutual watchfulness, America has demonstrated a robust civil-military structure with a healthy tolerance for risk. This was evident from the joint political-military decision to prosecute an “Afghan friendly” strategy despite the politically nettlesome issue of higher US casualties; and from Obama’s swift decision that the general had unacceptably violated propriety in making public the fissures between top US policymakers.

For those who missed last week’s drama, General McChrystal and his personal staff --- styling themselves in the macho moulds of the Dirty Dozen and the Inglourious Basterds --- committed the breathtaking mistake of embedding a writer for Rolling Stone magazine into their inner circle for a month, letting him listen in on formal and informal conversations with apparently everything on the record.

Although McChrystal’s sacking will be a studied chapter in US civil-military relations, Obama’s was an easy decision compared to the dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur by President Harry Truman in 1951. MacArthur, the hero of two world wars, a winner of the Medal of Honour (America’s Param Vir Chakra), and the de facto ruler --- the American Shogun --- of Japan from 1945-50, had been recalled from Tokyo in 1950 to command the UN forces in Korea. Angered by China’s intervention in the war, MacArthur publicly challenged Truman’s restraint by planning nuclear attacks on Chinese air bases. An outraged Truman rejected warnings that MacArthur might beat him in the 1952 presidential elections. Overruling support for MacArthur from Secretary of Defence, General George Marshall; and Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff, General Omar Bradley, Truman ended MacArthur’s career.

All of this is unthinkable in India, where the system produces generals (and that includes flag officers of the navy and the air force) who would never dream of functioning like Stanley McChrystal. That might indicate a healthier civil-military relationship in India, but only if one were to look superficially at just the Rolling Stone fiasco. Looking deeper --- especially at McChrystal’s, and now Petraeus’ selection as commanders in Afghanistan based on clear strategies that they brought to the table --- India could learn much from the US civil-military structure, based as it is on meritocracy, responsibility and accountability.

Consider how India would have selected a commander for a hypothetical Afghanistan mission: the MoD would have asked the Indian Army to “post” a suitable general. In the US the president nominates key commanders, based on their achievements and abilities, and the Congress ratifies those appointments. General Petraeus, for example, was nominated as US Central Command chief, superseding several compatriots, after framing a widely acclaimed counter-insurgency doctrine for the US military. American generals routinely leapfrog less talented officers while being appointed to higher rank.

But, in the poisoned relationship between India’s military and the bureaucratic-political elite, the armed forces reject US-style “deep selection”. India’s military suspects that political interests would run rampant, promoting well-connected officers rather than competent ones. The army remembers Lieutenant General BM Kaul, whose connections with Nehru allowed him to drive India to defeat at the hands of China in 1962.

This would be valid reasoning, were it not for a growing phenomenon: increasingly mid-ranking and senior officers are seeking political and bureaucratic patronage. The media has already reported instances where the Akali Dal and certain UP parties have lobbied on behalf of senior military officers. Bureaucrats too often approach the MoD to push the cases of nephews, nieces and country cousins. So, allowing an institutional gulf between the military and the political-bureaucratic class, even as patronage thrives below the radar, amounts to getting the worst of both worlds: condoning patronage while preventing partnership.

The Indian military’s insularity --- with officers carefully shielded from outside influences, and shaped instead by a numbing professional uniformity --- prevents the development of commanders who can operate confidently at the political-strategic levels. While US generals like Petraeus and McChrystal gain credit for doing Ph.Ds and M.Phils and for being cerebral academics, India’s armed forces give no credit to an officer for non-military qualifications. And the question of seconding officers to other government and non-government organisations to obtain a wider perspective is dismissed with: the MoD will never allow it.

There, the military may have a point. The political and bureaucratic elites fear, deep down, that allowing officers out of the cantonments could open the door to a rampantly political military. And so the two arms of government --- civil and military --- occupy separate worlds in India, glowering at each other across an abyss of distrust. Interaction is minimal, even in formulating national security policy; the bureaucrats and diplomats do that for the elected leaders who remain, for the most part, strategically unschooled. Bred in the tradition of the freedom struggle, they see political agitation as a more potent and familiar instrument than military power --- a confusing and technical subject that is the preserve of an English speaking elite that they don’t identify with.


  1. superlike this article

  2. what you say is all true, but when has the US military ever won a war? In WW2 they nuked Japan, Germany was really defeated by the Soviet Union.

    In Afghanistan, this McChrystal flap is really about the whole campaign going nowwhere. The political constraints (i.e. the Durand Line) means they have been tasked with an impossible mission.

    The US military has a certain bureaucratic style: a massive logistics chain (all those trucks carrying bottled water!), overwhelming technology, but it all produces a mouse.

    I would agree that a successful military campaign these days would require a sophisticated political - military machine. The goals are amorphous and often require a media spin to tell people what they are.

    Do you really see that in the US?In Iraq the USA created vigilante groups (the equivalent of the Salva Judum, like we tried to do in Chattisgarh) to control the internecine conflict. That was spun as a great military victory. So perhaps they do learn, but experience is making them more Indian.

  3. Ajai sir

    I think you are forgeting some more officials in Indian defense establishment

    1. Air Marshal Subroto Mukherjee who was rumored to be plotting a coup against Nehru and his death in Tokyo is still considered a mystery and often suspected as murder.

    2. General Padmanabhaiya who once famously said that if Pakistan thinks of using the nuclear option India will wipe out Pakistan much much to the dismay of top political leaders.

    Also being in media yourself,
    you should know how media can influence decisions

    Case in point your former collegue Barkha Dutt interviewed Vikram Batra and made him a hero (no way i am trying to say that he did not deserve it) and the focus fell entirely on Drass, Kargil sector where he operated; whereas Manoj Kumar Pandey who fought more fierce battles in Batalik sector didnt get that media coverage or attention he and infact the batalions fighting in Batalik deserved (infact war records in Batalik sector were fudged).

    Its important to remember that media should know how to self regulate itself and not report on matters that may discredit our armed forces.

    The political leadership of India which very well knows that Indian armed forces are apolitical must try to create a mechanism where in there is greater interaction between military and bureaucrats.

    That will not only put a stop on contradicting statements from both sides, but also help smoothen interaction between them during times of crisis.

  4. Hmm...the article seems naive about the American 'meritocracy' and the extent of segregation of the military and politics in India. The truth, as the cliche goes, is somewhere in the middle. Still, kudos for attempting an interesting article.

    BTW, Anonymous' dig at the US is rummy. If he is right, one wonders why India, and much of the world, sucks up to the US.

  5. Srikanth Madani29 June 2010 at 05:10

    The article does well to point out a failing in the Indian Army, in that it remains cut-off from the civilian mainstream. This divide is mitigated by the fact that the army continually recruits, and this process is open to all.

    However, whilst we are on the subject of comparing the Indian Army with the most modern and professional of armies (i.e. the US Army), we ought to also focus on the preposterous sense of entitlement that an army uniform engenders (with certainly officers and also soldiers expecting superlative treatment, if not outright monetary discounts, at establishments selling products and services to the general public; with soldiers being used as domestic help by officers; with soldiers talked down to by officers), the archaic cantonment system (the natives are a pleasant lot, once you get to know them), the even more puzzling perks system (artificially depressed rental prices, free of charge private communication, subsidized canteens and travel - why cannot all of this be monetized and published as part of the compensation package?) and the use of of a foreign language (English) by the officer class (helpful when called upon to defend the green fields of England, of course).

    Solving these issues - no easy task, for they are firmly entrenched - shall transform the Indian Army into a more professional and effective one; at any rate, into one closer to the society it seeks to defend.

    The current role of the army officer, (morally) superior to (most) civillians and patronizing towards juniors, cannot be sustainable in the post-colonial world, once universal education kicks in and every single person has the right to be treated with dignity and hold a political opinion.

  6. Why mess with a working system?

    Politics and Army have to be kept apart at all costs otherwise India can easily end up a second pakistan due to the large amount of martial races prsent in India.

    The petty influences of akali dal, UP parliament,etc in selection have to be crushed through enforcing stricter laws for any such cases found.

    Even the bad practice of the Army chief appoint all officers from hios own class like eg V K Singh appointing all rajputs at high posts should be brought to the fore. Army should work on pure meritrocracy to serve as a model of institution for all other government agencies.

    Professionalism and higher education is seriously lacking in Indian army. They seem to completely ignore the need for them to develop technology related knowledge like the Armoured vehicle technology,etc. They should draft some institutions for Armoured vehicle /tank design ,etc so that they can chalk out a GSQr at a faster rate.

  7. @Anon 1433, I think you are a fool with limited knowledge of the American Military and the Indian Military systems. Ajai has a very valid point. The Indian Military is schooled to think like tools, as a technical means to an end. The US Military is schooled to think independently and frame their own policies. I dare you to find an Indian military official who has the intellectual accomplishments that almost every single General in the US Army General Staff possesses. The US Military only promotes thinkers beyond mid-level officer grades, whereas in India promotions are based on the length of your service and other antiquated factors that don't necessarily translate into leadership abilities. In fact, that's the key difference: leadership. The Indian Military is trained to act as though they were a class of NCOs (if you took the military metaphor to a political landscape), whereas the US Military possesses the leadership qualities that truly defines Officership. I've lived in the States half my life and really wished to join the Indian Army, but the culture and impossibly rigid mindset that dominates military leadership in India has put me off from taking a commission. If the Indian Military changes some of it's Victorian attitudes, I might reconsider.

  8. Sorry sir, but you are a changed man since your trip to Boeing. Somebody told you to write articles that bring us in awe of the big uncle.

  9. An excellant article from Ajay. Kudos to him.

    Without taking away any credit from him I would like to recommend an article from Vir Sanghvi on a similar subject. Please visit this link.
    I am quoting here last few lines from his article titled "The Unsung Heroes of Indian Democracy" dated 27 June 2010.
    "I suspect that the army’s readiness to remain in the background and the low profile chosen by its generals are both relatively unsung manifestations of the success of Indian democracy. Even in this media-crazy age, our officers have not been swayed by the glory of personal publicity or lusted for fame. One more thing to be grateful to our armed forces for."

  10. "When has the US military ever won a war?"

    Russia defeated Germany and the victorious Imperial Army of Japan surrendered because of the Atom Bomb.

    Awesome! Where have you been the past 70 years? Do you have any knowledge of WW2, or are these just what your uncle told you?

  11. Whether this was a right decision and not only a political decision can be seen only after the results are out.

  12. "Russia defeated Germany "

    Russia was the major factor behind the defeat of Germany. Any Russian operation (like Bagration) was an order of magnitude larger than the US/UK operation. I don't think anyone would dispute that.

    "Do you have any knowledge of WW2, or are these just what your uncle told you?"

    well it could be better than getting knowledge from a 1001 Hollywood WW2 films.

    The US operates on a broad spectrum. Hollywood films are like a softening up operation to overawe the natives. Even Ajai Shukla here has fallen into the trap and referenced two Hollywood WW2 films.

    The only thing that concerns me is the possibility of the Indian army getting entrapped in Afghanistan with the US military. It would be like trying to secure J & K without controlling the Line of Control. How dumb or arrogant is that? And yet you people praise the "deep thinking" US military.

  13. what did m_hoey has to say about this sir

  14. It is true that America has never won a war, but it is also true that America has always won the politics.

  15. Agnivesh Kapoor30 June 2010 at 08:15

    Shukla Sir, drdo has responded to your ASAT article. Here is the link.

  16. The article does well to point out a failing in the Indian Army. Good article. Much better than the M Hoey one you published a few days before.

  17. The reason why America is a super power is the basic commitment to a democratic system.
    McChrystal got what he deserved by violating the stringent rules of serving defence officers.
    Obama did what he had to do.
    In India we are many light yers away from military propriety and political common sense!!

  18. I guess the difference is that the Indian General would not get fired, but American General would...also the American President can get impeached...while in India criminals can become ministers....
    that is the difference...


    Read up.

    You think because we dropped nuclear weapons after reducing Japan to only its home islands, it isn't a military victory? What inanity is this?

    After evicting Japanese forces from some of the most difficult jungle terrain, using amphibious landings, while maintaining casualty ratings ranging from 3:1 to 7:1 in our favor (please see Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Guam)?

    After pitting 3 US carriers vs 4 Japanese carriers, battleships and a much larger invasion fleet of Midway, resulting in 4 Japanese carriers sunk, with 1 US carrier lost?

    Leave alone the Spanish American War, WW1, the Korean War, Gulf War 1, etc.

    If there is a major weakness of the US army, its the political base at home and an unwillingness to take casualties. A classic case in point would be Vietnam, where with 50,000 US soldiers dead, and several hundred thousand North Vietnamese and Chinese troops dead, the stalemate was broken by our withdrawal.


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