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Belmont Club

Last Chance Saloon

June 23rd, 2010 - 6:32 pm

What does the dismissal of Stanley McChrystal in favor of his superior, General David Petraeus, imply about 1) the future conduct of the Afghan campaign and 2) the ability of President Obama to impose his strategic vision on the War on Terror? The Christian Science Monitor argues that the appointment of Petraeus, while “something of a demotion” from the Central Command CINC, represents doctrinal continuity. “In announcing the McChrystal firing, Obama emphasized that he remains committed to the current strategy, which calls for a bump-up in US personnel in Afghanistan this year. And Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus – the man Obama picked to replace McChrystal – literally wrote the manual on counterinsurgency techniques which US commanders in Afghanistan have been following.”

But in a sense, the crisis involves a question higher than doctrine. It has indirectly called into question strategy. Petraeus’s appointment suggests the President has been forced to give up his own handcrafted approach in favor of something — anything — that works.  What that will be is still unknown. The McChrystal incident revealed the extent of problems which have been kept quiet. If the President has gone to the Miracle Man it is first and foremost in the expectation that Petraeus will save him from himself.

An interview by Michael Hastings, the author of the Rolling Stone article described the mismatch in understanding between the President and his chosen McChrystal. Asked whether Obama was a wholehearted supporter of the COIN doctrine, Hastings said the President had an almost childish understanding of it.

I think once the decision was made to do a counterinsurgency strategy, they had a pretty clear idea in mind what they wanted to do and I think this is quite interesting. I think this is one of the issues Obama didn’t really understand what counter-insurgency meant and when the military said they wanted to do a counterinsurgency strategy that that actually meant 150,000 troops. Obama thought he could get away with just sending 21,000 over and getting a new general.

Military doctrine was probably never Obama’s strong suit. Politics was his primary concern. One of the reasons McChrystal had been selected in the first place, as Glenn Reynolds has pointed out, was that he was not General “Betray-Us”, burdened with the baggage of the Iraq Surge. But now Petraeus military talent may be more important than his political associations. The Washington Post‘s description of the flurry of crisis meetings before and after McChrystal’s resignation shows the depth of the crisis into which the administration had been plunged.

The idea to name Petraeus had first come up on Tuesday afternoon, in a meeting between the president and Gates. Petraeus was discussed further Tuesday evening as the White House asked the Pentagon to draw up a list of names in case the president decided to fire McChrystal. …

Immediately after meeting with McChrystal, Obama gathered in the Oval Office with his national security brain trust: Vice President Biden, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, national security adviser James Jones, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

For 45 minutes, the group chewed over what to do next, and who should replace McChrystal. A senior administration official said that the group discussed Gen. David Petraeus, who was at that moment waiting in the West Wing, having been asked to arrive early for an afternoon meeting. …

“Many of us saw the very challenge that the president outlined today in how you retain a chain of command given this,” one adviser said. “If you read the beginning of the article, you are left with great concern about how our allies will read this.”

To a large extent the President’s political fate — and his image with Allies — is now in David Petraeus’ hands. But now a further crisis is bound to follow. The key terms going forward are Elkenberry, Karzai, ROE. The Rolling Stone article which precipitated the crisis writes:

McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It’s “insurgent math,” as he calls it – for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. He has ordered convoys to curtail their reckless driving, put restrictions on the use of air power and severely limited night raids. He regularly apologizes to Hamid Karzai when civilians are killed, and berates commanders responsible for civilian deaths. “For a while,” says one U.S. official, “the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan was in front of McChrystal after a ‘civ cas’ incident.” The ISAF command has even discussed ways to make not killing into something you can win an award for: There’s talk of creating a new medal for “courageous restraint,” a buzzword that’s unlikely to gain much traction in the gung-ho culture of the U.S. military.

But however strategic they may be, McChrystal’s new marching orders have caused an intense backlash among his own troops. Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. “Bottom line?” says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.” …

McChrystal may have sold President Obama on counterinsurgency, but many of his own men aren’t buying it.

Mere hours after McChrystal’s departure it obvious that the larger issues, rather than being settled by the appointment of Petraeus, had in fact been thrown open. SFGate reported that the most basic assumptions of the campaign were already being re-examined. “Hours after Gen. David Petraeus’ appointment as the top commander in Afghanistan, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is already declaring that he will pressure Petraeus to abandon President Obama’s ‘arbitrary’ July 2011 withdrawal date and instead base troop drawdown on the current conditions in Afghanistan.” Ultimately the McChrystal crisis is an Obama crisis. Mike Brownfield at the Heritage Foundation says, “he is reaping the bitter harvest of his failure to take decisive action.”

Those divisions are of Obama’s own making, stemming from his lack of leadership and failure to make a firm commitment to victory in Afghanistan. It took the president 10 months to decide on an Afghanistan strategy, he took a middle road in only committing 30,000 additional troops to the mission, many fewer than Gen. McChrystal had requested, and he imposed an artificial timeline for withdrawal that sent mixed signals to the country, the military, our allies and our enemies about America’s resolve to win the war.

The appointment of General Petreaus isn’t likely to be the end of the bout. It’s the opening bell.

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