Europeans React Skeptically to McChrystal Debacle

U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to remove General Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan has generated considerable media commentary in Europe, where governments are facing an uphill struggle to reverse dwindling public support for the Afghan deployment.

Most European opinion-shapers say that Obama had no choice but to relieve McChrystal of his command after the general and his associates publicly ridiculed Obama’s war cabinet in a magazine article. But the overarching theme in European newspaper commentary is that McChrystal’s insubordination is a symptom of a much larger problem, namely that Obama’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is not working.

Around 25 European countries collectively have more than 30,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan, but political pressure is mounting on European governments to withdraw those troops from the country. Recent polls show that more than 70 percent of Britons want their troops out of Afghanistan immediately, as do 62 percent of Germans. Polling across Europe — from Portugal to Poland — shows that well over 50 percent of Europeans want their troops to come home.

In February, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende’s coalition government collapsed when the two largest parties failed to agree on whether to withdraw troops from Afghanistan this year as planned. Now the Poles, the British, and others are discussing how long they will stay.

Although European governments have praised Obama’s decision to name General David Petraeus as the new commander in Afghanistan, the public squabbling within Obama’s inner circle clearly has undermined the president’s credibility, which up until now has provided European governments with much-needed political cover to help them keep their troops in Afghanistan. The question is now: can Petraeus make enough headway in Afghanistan to keep the Europeans from rushing to the exits?

What follows is a brief selection of European commentary on the McChrystal affair:

In Britain, the left-wing Guardian published an article titled “Fears for Afghan Strategy after 24 Hours of Turmoil.” It says the “Rolling Stone story has focused attention on the serious divisions and personality clashes among those in charge of the military and political strategies. That in turn has led to further questioning of whether McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy is working. ... The likelihood that McChrystal’s strategy will fail is accepted by some senior British Army officials. One speculated that the coming year would bring a further scaling back of the objective of the international mission in Afghanistan, which already slipped last year from ‘defeating’ to ‘degrading’ the Taliban.”

Another Guardian article titled “Where McChrystal Led, Britain Followed” says McChrystal’s dismissal should make British commanders, diplomats, and politicians rethink their Afghan policy. The article says: “For the British military, especially the British special forces, McChrystal was a hero of almost Homeric proportions. His dismissal should make the commanders, diplomats and politicians think hard and think again about the Afghanistan policy from top to bottom. It is no use them clinging to the notion that the British army needs to defend its military honour and prowess to prove Britain is still a vital ally to the U.S. — which is how some argue for our troops still being there. Notions of honour and fidelity are not in any sense practical operational objectives.”

Also in Britain, the Economist magazine published an essay titled “McChrystal and Afghanistan: It’s His War.” It says: “Mr. McChrystal is an advocate of full-spectrum counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare, a sophisticated approach that embraces politics and economic development as part of the war effort. But the question facing COIN advocates in Afghanistan today isn’t whether they are, in principle, right about how to fight insurgencies. The question is whether this approach — which demands such sophistication and expertise, so many soldiers who are also social workers, agriculture experts and police trainers, so many USAID consultants who need to be protected by soldiers, and such an effective development aid effort in a world that has rarely seen effective development aid anywhere, let alone in the middle of a jihadist insurgency — is possible in practice. And, if so, is it possible in Afghanistan? Is it achievable by the actually existing American military and aid bureaucracy in Afghanistan? And can it be done at a price that Americans are willing or even able to pay? The answer we’re seeing so far isn’t yes.”

In another article titled “Out with the New, in with the Old,” the Economist says: “Today’s decisions [to replace General McChrystal] do not change the reality on the ground in Afghanistan, where a brutal insurgency and incompetent government make victory, however it is defined, uncertain at best. Nor does it do much to change Eliot Cohen’s observation that Mr. Obama has assembled a dysfunctional team to work on the Afghan project. And, with General Petraeus now focused 1,500 miles east, what becomes of Iraq?”