Bottomline | Lessons in Leadership

General Stanley McChrystal’s memoirs My Share of the Task is a must read for those interested in security and defence

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

Four months into his presidency when the US commander-in-chief, Barack Obama met his newly-appointed overall forces commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal on 19 May 2009 in the White House, the die had been cast. ‘The meeting was short, but cordial. The president offered no specific guidance but locked his eyes with mine and thanked me for accepting the responsibility,’ is how McChrystal summed it. The guidance that the general referred to was stating the mission of the war.

McChrystal’s challenge was to fight successful battles with 61,000 strong ISAF force from 42 nations besides 57,000 US troops with an unstated mission. Based upon his interactions with defence secretary Bob Gates and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, McChrystal concluded his mission to be ‘Defeat the Taliban, Secure the Population.’ It was six months into the fight on December 2 that Obama finally placed his cards on the table. He announced a 30,000 US troops surge for 18 months to commence withdrawal of US forces in July 2011. The still unstated but unambiguous mission was quit soon. For the Taliban and their mentor, the Pakistan Army, the US appetite for war was over. The Pakistan chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Kayani who was with McChrystal when his C-in-C conceded defeat to the Taliban, said that, ‘he felt we (ISAF and US forces) lacked the time to accomplish all that was necessary before support for our effort would fade. He (Kayani) particularly doubted our ability to create effective Afghan security forces to which we could later transfer control.’

McChrystal, however, was not to be part of US’ retreat from Afghanistan. Providence intervened and he was forced to hang his boots on 22 June 2011, 11 months after he had accepted the daunting challenge in Afghanistan. A journalist, Michael Hastings of the Rolling Stone magazine embedded with McChrystal’s command team heard their everyday frustrations, cursing and jeering of the White House and wrote it all in an article that took Washington by storm. McChrystal took responsibility for his team and resigned. Two years later, he wrote his memoirs, ‘My Share of the Task’, a book that everyone concerned with security policy and in the business of defence should read.

Three issues in the book stand out. The first is that for success in war all stakeholders (strategic level) should be on the same page. Obama’s While House from the beginning was at sharp variance with the Pentagon and the State department. Two instances from the book demonstrate the grievous discord. On assuming command in June 2009, McChrystal in a lengthy briefing by Gates was given 60 days ‘to conduct a strategic assessment of the war to determine any necessary changes to the mission, strategy, or how our forces were organised.’

However, within days of his reaching Kabul on June 23, the National Security Advisor, Jim Jones met McChrystal with journalist Bob Woodward of the Washington Post in tow to tell him that the President would entertain request for any additional troops after evaluation was made of present forces by end-2009. While Gates has set the assessment deadline for middle August, Jones was talking of five months later in January 2010. Worse, the confidential assessment sent by McChrystal to the C-in-C on Gates’ asking was leaked to the Washington Post; showing McChrystal incapable of doing the task within allotted resources. Then, there was haggling for additional forces. While Gates and secretary of state Clinton argued for full 40,000 additional forces asked by McChrystal, President Obama in a surprise move reduced it to 30,000 strength with defeat (in the form of announced withdrawal deadline) written all over.

The second issue concerns operations. Gates (counterpart of Indian defence minister, A.K. Antony) did not tell McChrystal to just do the operations, but gave guidelines to do them well. It was Gates’ idea that McChrystal consider setting up a three-star tri-service ISAF Joint Command (IJC) in Afghanistan, something that was not required in Iraq. The IJC was ‘to run the day-to-day operations of the war and directly supervise the five regional commands that divided the country among the capital, north, west, south and east. The secretary (Gates) was convinced we needed an intermediate level of war,’ writes McChrystal. Once McChrystal and his team understood issues in Afghanistan, it was clear to them that there were ‘5 Regional Wars — Not One Fight’, and hence the need for IJC to provide semblance of unity of command. The book provides details about whys and hows of operations and the complete involvement of the political, civilian and military leadership in operations at the Pentagon; something unthinkable in India.

The third issue is about (military) leadership. ‘Leadership is not command. Some of the greatest leaders commanded nothing but respect,’ McChrystal writes. While there are numerous attributes of a leader, fundamentally it boils down to three qualities: take responsibility for the mistakes (even of your team, which McChrystal did); know your job; and have empathy for the people you work with. ‘Switch just two people – the battalion commander and command sergeant major — from the best battalion with those of the worst, and within 90 days the relative effectiveness of the battalions will have switched as well,’ he writes. Clearly, a lesson worth imbibing.


Call us