President Obama has announced that he accepted the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and named General David Petraeus, currently commander of U.S. Central Command, as his replacement.
Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic asked after the Rolling Stone article broke: “What the Heck Was McChrystal Thinking?” This seems to be the same question asked by President Obama. A “furious” commander in chief ordered the general to personally explain some bizarre and intemperate remarks about the White House national security team made by McChrystal and his staff in the magazine profile. Earlier today, McChrystal met with the president for 30 minutes, where apparently the decision was made to replace him with General Petraeus.
Would that our president could get “furious” about the jobs situation in the country or the Gulf Coast oil spill. But neither of those leaderless crises are affronts to the president’s personal pride, so they get the “cool and detached” treatment. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, those twin bumbles will also lead to detaching Barack Obama from the White House — if the good Lord will vouchsafe us a little luck and the GOP can get its act together by 2012.
Unfortunately, the Obama national security team’s incompetence in Afghanistan is doing a lot more damage than oiling up a few pelicans or causing enormous angst among American workers, both employed and unemployed. What’s at stake are the lives of young men and women, the safety and security of the United States, and the efficacy of the North Atlantic alliance that has lasted longer than any other mutual security pact in history.
McChrystal’s staff did most of the damage in the article, referring to National Security Advisor Jim Jones as a “clown” who was “stuck in 1985.” He nicknamed Vice President Biden “Bite me.” The disparaging manner in which they spoke of both Afghan Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Special AfPak Ambassador Richard Holbrooke reveals a chasm that has opened up between the civilian and military leadership on what to do about bringing a satisfactory conclusion to our efforts in Afghanistan — a chasm that appears unbridgeable at this point and is contributing to the horrible sinking sensation many are feeling when looking at the situation deteriorate.
In truth, this is the major source of frustration for all sides in this spat; there simply isn’t a way forward that even smells like victory in the traditional sense. And as the months drag on, General McChrystal has found that the strategy that was so painstakingly drawn up and agonized over by the president cannot be implemented to any degree that would begin to make a difference in the security situation. Nor can the strategy change the dynamic in Kabul, where President Karzai sits atop a rickety government that is nowhere near ready to accept responsibility for the country’s security.
For one thing, the enemy is not cooperating by presenting themselves for execution. When Americans or NATO forces show up, the Taliban goes to ground, knowing all they have to do is wait a few months and most Americans will be gone, leaving the field to them. For another, the Afghan civilians are torn between the tyranny of the Taliban or continued war if they accept the legitimacy of their own government. It appears that being alive, albeit oppressed, is winning out over the alternative.
Couple that with McChrystal employing rules of engagement that many of our troops believe go too far in trying to protect civilians, and you have the worst of both worlds: a policy that so far has failed to achieve even minimal results, and rules that hamstring our soldiers just when the fighting is beginning to pick up in intensity.
Michael Hastings, author of the Rolling Stone article, relates a visit to a platoon where General McChrystal is scheduled to visit the next day to attend a memorial service for a comrade lost in combat:
Almost all of the soldiers here have been on repeated combat tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and have seen some of the worst fighting of both wars. But they are especially angered by Ingram’s death. His commanders had repeatedly requested permission to tear down the house where Ingram was killed, noting that it was often used as a combat position by the Taliban. But due to McChrystal’s new restrictions to avoid upsetting civilians, the request had been denied. “These were abandoned houses,” fumes Staff Sgt. Kennith Hicks. “Nobody was coming back to live in them.”
One soldier shows me the list of new regulations the platoon was given. “Patrol only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourselves with lethal force,” the laminated card reads. For a soldier who has traveled halfway around the world to fight, that’s like telling a cop he should only patrol in areas where he knows he won’t have to make arrests.
Aside from a policy that may be failing before it is even fully implemented, the Rolling Stone article shows that there is a dysfunctional relationship at the top of the chain of command between the military and civilians in the State Department.
It’s no secret that Afghan Ambassador Karl Eikenberry has had the long knives out for McChrystal from the beginning. This intramural tiff between the former three-star general ambassador and the former head of the Joint Special Operations Command goes back to counterinsurgency operations carried out by McChrystal’s Special Forces in Afghanistan, to which Eikenberry, who was commander at the time, objected strenuously. They have been at odds ever since.
The question is: was the president aware of this debilitating feud at the top level of his Afghanistan team? If he was, why in God’s name didn’t he do anything about it?
For months Obama has tolerated deep divisions between his military and civilian aides over how to implement the counterinsurgency strategy he announced last December. The divide has made it practically impossible to fashion a coherent politico-military plan, led to frequent disputes over tactics and contributed to a sharp deterioration in the administration’s relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
One person who will be sad to see McChrystal relieved is Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who called the former commander a person of “great integrity.”
“The president believes that Gen. McChrystal is the best commander that NATO and coalition forces have had in Afghanistan over the past nine years,” spokesman Waheed Omar said. Omar said McChrystal has worked closely with Karzai since he took command last year and that “lots of things have improved.”
Karzai’s half brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, who many American officials believe to be a major figure in the drug trade in Afghanistan and who stands accused of vote rigging in the last presidential election, is even more effusive in his praise of McChrystal:
“He is the first good thing to happen to Afghanistan,” said Karzai’s half brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, considered the most powerful figure in Kandahar. “He is active. He is honest. He does a good job, a lot of positive things have happened since he has come.”
Nevertheless, the move to replace McChrystal with Petraeus is a no-brainer. Only the general credited with turning around the situation in Iraq possessed the gravitas and public relations value that would allow the president to put this incident behind him quickly while maintaining the military’s confidence in the mission.
Several questions arise with the ascension of Petraeus, not the least of which relates to the president’s withdrawal timetable. Will Petraeus be granted additional time to get organized, survey the situation, and place his imprint on operations? Or will Obama stick to his July 2011 deadline for withdrawing American forces? How many of McChrystal’s people will Petraeus keep on? What about the military’s relationship with civilians in the State Department?
Petraeus is a brave soldier. He has taken on a thankless task with very little chance that he can forge a more satisfying conclusion to our efforts in Afghanistan than McChrystal would have been able — especially given the limited time mandated by the president’s withdrawal timetable. President Obama is, in effect, using Petraeus’ stellar reputation to cover a messy PR problem while failing to deal with the underlying tensions between the State Department and the military in Afghanistan.
Ambassadors Eikenberry and Holbrooke have come under heavy criticism for their disdain for President Karzai and their handling of reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both men crossed swords with General McChrystal over civilian casualties, as well as over the way the war was being conducted in the provinces. It begs the question why the president didn’t replace Eikenberry, who has been particularly bitter in his comments about McChrystal.
Did McChrystal deserve his fate? If Petraeus could be considered the brains behind the Iraq surge, McChrystal was certainly the sharp end of the stick. His Special Forces troops beat down the Iraqi insurgency and al-Qaeda with terrifying precision and speed. They turned counterinsurgency conventional wisdom on its head while pacifying large tracts of Iraq that had resisted previous efforts to control.
But his disrespect of civilians made keeping him in command an impossibility. To his credit, McChrystal recognized that and jumped before he was pushed. A sad end to the career of a great leader.