Gen. David McKiernan (LCPL Bryan J. Nealy, USMC); Gen. Karl Eikenberry (U.S. Army PFC Leslie Angulo); Gen. Stanley McChrystal (Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. David E. Alvarado)
Don’t let the Afghanistan generals deflect, displace, or dissemble

Top commanders are looking for absolution (while blaming their civilian masters). But what we need is accountability.

After 20 years of a mismanaged Afghanistan war that ended in a disastrous finale, Americans are now asking for accountability. Some critics of the war are even demanding that all of the post 9/11 generals be summarily fired for strategic incompetence. 

Many of these former senior generals, who were promoting overly optimistic public statements during their tenures in command, are suddenly and openly questioning the basis for the war and whether they share the blame. In a round robin with CNN interviewer Jake Tapper, former Afghanistan commander Karl Eikenberry acknowledged,  “there was no clear end state…was it worth it?” Next, former three-star Douglas Lute exclaimed, “we were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing.” General Stanley McChrystal, who commanded U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2009-2010, even questioned whether a military response to 9/11 was the most prudential option. But where were these trepidations when these generals were holding positions of authority, while the men and women under their command were dying on the battlefield?

Let’s first acknowledge, the Afghanistan war began as a just war as it met all the jus ad bellum ethical requirements: the U.S. had a just cause — a response to the 9/11 attacks — as well as the right intentions, in destroying al-Qaeda. The response, a small footprint counterterrorism-focused operation, was also proportional, and stood a reasonable prospect of success in achieving the campaign’s initial objectives. Fair arguments have been made whether the use of military force was truly a last resort, but at the time, most experts agreed a pure law enforcement paradigm was not a sufficient response to address the al-Qaeda threat. However, wars that begin justly can over time lose their way and end unjustly.

This was the Afghanistan quagmire. After quickly overthrowing the Taliban and demolishing al-Qaeda, America’s limited counterterrorism strategy and objectives within Afghanistan expanded to include large-scale (but ineffective) counterinsurgency and counter-drug initiatives, half-baked economic development programs and aspirational nation-building. For a war to remain just, a state’s strategy must continue to have a reasonable probability of success; otherwise, lives are wasted, and the likelihood of a lasting peace becomes dim.

In the coming months, Congress and other oversight bodies must lead reviews and investigations on the war’s failures and lack of accountability. Senior officials, both past and present, should be answerable for their wartime decisions. However, a full understanding of general officer responsibility might prove untenable since many of the high-level war-waging discussions with senior officials, including “best military advice,” were likely provided discreetly and in confidence. Even if these strategic deliberations are never publicly disclosed, the military profession demands that officers who serve at the commanding heights still introspectively assess their own moral liability.

Specifically, these generals should consider if the war-waging advice they provided to civilian leadership was consistent with the military professional ethic, including the just war norms. 

As David McKiernan, U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan recently said, questioning the extent of his personal moral liability from the war: 

“I am doing soul searching to determine — is it fair to say I did my share of the task?…Did I come up short in some way? What’s the duty owed to those who came home, not carrying their shields, but on their shields?” 

All generals of the Afghanistan war, at a minimum, owe it to the men and women who served under them to answer these important questions.

So what does the military profession demand of our generals, specifically when they do not think a war’s objectives can be reasonably achieved?

The DoD’s Armed Forces Officer guide articulates the ethical underpinnings at the core of the profession. The guide states that the moral burden to go to war falls primarily on our political leaders but senior officers are not off the hook, because they provide military counsel to political leaders, on matters such as feasibility and costs (related to the jus ad bellum criterion of a reasonable probability of success). Therefore, military planners and generals should have determined whether the mission-creep and evolving political aims in Afghanistan had a reasonable chance of success. Then, they should have provided this objective analysis through candid and clear headed counsel to the political leadership. 

How should these generals have determined whether there was a reasonable chance of success in Afghanistan?

Probability is never static and always a matter of circumstance. Picking reasonable options within the constraints, opportunities and information known at the time is a formidable task, but it is what we expect from our most senior generals. Even though a reasonable chance of success is not defined in military doctrine, the military does have a jus in bello framework that these general officers should have been familiar with, called reasonable certainty (commonly understood as “more likely than not”).

In the military, it is considered the minimum moral bar when determining whether to use lethal force. Prior to the use of lethal force, military commanders are required to positively identify the intended target, based upon reasonable certainty, that the proposed target is a legitimate military target. 

Similar to the decision to use lethal force, when these generals were serving as commanders in Afghanistan and considering various campaign options that operationalized the shifting U.S. strategy and objectives, they should have taken the necessary steps to determine if their plans were, at a minimum, more likely than not going to succeed. The military calls this mission analysis. It requires culling through available intelligence, identifying resources requirements, and coordinating with the interagency. This must be done while also tempering the warfighter’s predominant “can-do” ethos, to determine whether the military’s efforts are any better than a coin-flip in achieving the White House’s desired end-state. 

But what if civilian leadership still decides to pursue an ill-advised strategy (e.g., an under-resourced counter-insurgency campaign supporting a corrupt, inept, ineffective and unpopular government), one that does not have a reasonable certainty of success, endangering the lives of men and women in uniform and civilians? An advisor to former General McChrystal has described the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan as nearly hopeless: “implementing an effective counterinsurgency campaign requires a level of local knowledge that I don’t have about my own hometown.”

In the just war tradition, describing a Sisyphean strategy and then attempting to execute it is an immoral act. However, even in this circumstance, senior officers are still empowered with moral agency and a choice: they can either stay in command and accept some of the moral liability in waging an unjust war or they can request to be re-assigned, resign, or retire to avoid this moral stain. Over the course of the war, no generals pursued the latter option. Therefore, these men either believed in the feasibility of the mission, at the time, or they did not but were still determined to remain in command and become morally compromised. 

Given that revelations in the Afghanistan Papers show that top officials, including Eikenberry, were aware long ago that the landscape was bleak but persisted in putting on a different face for Congress and the public anyway, throws into question how much they really “believed” was achievable at the time.

The military officer’s guide provides this much, “…the senior military officers’ role is to vigorously provide the best professional military advice possible to our political leaders. The Commander in Chief or the Secretary of Defense make the decisions. And unless they are illegal or immoral, the military must carry out the orders of the President or the Secretary.” The officer’s guide state’s that an officer who cannot support these decisions in “good conscience,” must offer to resign or retire.

In the end, a proper accounting will probably continue to prove elusive with lots of deflection at our elected leaders, some rightfully so. However, as the military adage goes, “A private who loses his rifle suffers greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” Not a single general was fired for providing deficient or faulty advice. Although, no man can entirely escape accountability even if it only exists between the general and his conscience. For those of us seeking accountability, this might be our only comfort.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.