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Why General Petraeus Is Better Suited for Our Afghanistan Mission Than General McChrystal Ever Was

“Command climate” is what shapes a military organization. The preferences, priorities, and peccadilloes of the commander echo across its staff and subordinate units. Command climate functions as an organization's persona and it plays just as powerful a role in its behavior—and effectiveness—as an individual's personality. Command climate reflects the accumulation of a commander's military experience; it is the signature of a bureaucracy and, in this instance, a bureaucracy whose mission is the application and management of violence.

The sad demise of General Stanley McChrystal this week offers a case study in the powerful—and potentially calamitous—effects of a defective command climate. His staff in Afghanistan, like McChrystal himself, was intense, hard working, and immensely talented. Yet also like its commander, McChrystal's headquarters—press coverage of the commander’s strict rules of engagement notwithstanding—was less skilled at the political and psychological dimension of counterinsurgency than it was in the American habits of war-fighting.

Had General McChrystal's configured his organization solely with the destruction of the enemy in mind (as with his Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq, which undertook what the military euphemistically terms "high-value targeting"), his command climate would have been well-matched. But its mission was counterinsurgency, a practice that requires its own skill sets, techniques, and procedures, and, finally, a unique and uniquely sensitive, politically sophisticated command climate.

The cliché contains a kernel of truth: the predominance of the political and the psychological distinguishes counterinsurgency from conventional warfare. Physical effects—what the military calls "kinetic" action—matter less than intangible and mostly psychological outcomes. The complexity of all this cannot be overstated. As a precondition for success, a commander and his organization need to cultivate different perceptions and expectations among multiple and very different audiences. They must persuade the enemy and its supporters that the insurgency has been doomed to failure but also that laying down one’s arms and surrendering offers honorable and realistic options. They must convince local allies—in this case the Afghan people, government, and security forces—that the United States will support them, given certain conditions but regardless of consequence. And they must convince the American people and their elites that the counterinsurgency deserves public support and, indeed, will culminate in something other than a bloody and protracted stalemate or defeat.

Put simply, a strategic communicator ought to know how to communicate. Some military leaders, even supremely talented combat commanders like General McChrystal, have been tested and found wanting in this regard.  While there were already rumors swirling within the officer corps to this effect, the explosive Rolling Stone article makes this truth plain for all to see. The command climate at McChrystal's headquarters was keyed to fight a war, but hardly attuned to the psychological and political elements of strategic level counterinsurgency.

It will be some time before we know exactly why this was (if we ever do). Perhaps it reflected General McChrystal's background in Special Forces. The Army's Special Forces remain, as their name implies, a breed apart. They include some of the most talented and intellectual members of the service, but they operate far from the glare of the media spotlight—illumination shells rather than klieg lights Theirs is a world of shadows, not public affairs. They leave perception management to others. As a rule, they tend not to know what to do with journalists, other than to avoid them.

This is as it should be. But perception management is the issue on the table in Afghanistan. Invariably, trouble arises when a senior commander moves from the world of shadows and its emphasis on killing to the showy world of strategic communications and public relations. Crossing the line becomes a nearly impossible mission. Simple human nature suggests that a military commander, like anyone else, will concentrate his efforts on the activities and through the prism to which he is well-versed, skilled, and accustomed. For a Special Forces officer, this means thinking, and killing, at the local level rather than managing and manipulating perceptions at the strategic and political levels.

General David Petraeus, by contrast, has already demonstrated his aptitude for counterinsurgency, at every level and across the board. While the consensus narrative credits the troop "surge" for Iraq’s turn around in 2007, Petraeus's ability to telegraph appropriate and simultaneous messages to the Iraqi insurgents, Iraqi population, Iraqi leadership, and, more important, to the America public and Congress was nearly without precedent. General McChrystal was one of America's foremost warfighters, but General Petraeus counts as one of its foremost strategic leaders. And that, in the end, will be what a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan requires. At the U.S. headquarters in Afghanistan, a new command climate is about to emerge from the old. It will be better than what went before.

Steven Metz is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.