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?”
The London-based Independent, in a commentary titled “President’s message to allies, enemies and Pentagon brass,” says: “What Mr. Obama will definitely want to eliminate, however, are the public disagreements over [Afghan war] strategy in the highest echelons of his administration. This president prides himself on his readiness to listen to differing points of view. But it is one thing to hold an uninhibited discussion in private. It is quite another for the argument over Afghanistan to rage in public, with leaks of secret telegrams and the spectacle of top officials openly contradicting one another on television and in the press. Not only are such public airings of disagreement especially irksome to an administration as tightly disciplined as this one. It sends the worst possible signal to uneasy allies and an increasingly emboldened enemy.”
In Germany, the Financial Times Deutschland, in a commentary titled “A Blow Below the Belt,” says: “The withdrawal of his main man in Afghanistan focuses public attention onto Obama’s limited progress in Afghanistan. With the exit of Commander McChrystal, the man who designed and embodied the strategy, the outlook for Afghanistan has worsened. And Obama does not need any more bad news. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill has inflicted heavy damage on the U.S. president’s standing. … In fact, Obama is so beleaguered that even the speed of McChrystal’s exit cannot be interpreted as a sign of strength. Instead in this scandal, as in the BP issue, the president appears to be a man at the mercy of public opinion. Obama’s new man in the Hindu Kush, General David Petraeus, who accomplished a turning point in Iraq, has to save more than just the Afghanistan mission. And that task alone is difficult enough. The current strategy is already ‘Plan C’ and Washington cannot afford any more failures. If this approach doesn’t work, then Obama could lose much more than just a general.”
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung, in a commentary titled “Strategy: Chaos,” says: “The post-9/11 occupation of Afghanistan has been littered with missed opportunities. This is demonstrated by the extensive collection of strategies that have been agreed upon and then shelved over the past nine years: Central or regional rule, civil or military presence, Parliament or Jirga, open war against the Taliban or commando operations, reconciliation or destruction. Much has been tried in Afghanistan but little has worked. … Because McChrystal publicly cast doubt over almost all the major U.S. players in Afghanistan, he had probably given up faith in the mission.”
The business daily Handelsblatt published an article titled “Doubts About Obama’s Afghanistan Strategy.” It says: “With the appointment of David Petraeus as the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Barack Obama wants to save his strategy in the Hindu Kush. But the replacement of McChrystal lays bare the discord within his administration.”
The left-wing Spiegel published a lengthy article titled “Germany’s Mission in Afghanistan: Ex-Defense Officials Skeptical of Success.” It says: “The belief that things will end well in Afghanistan is dwindling in Germany. An increasing number of security experts recommend an orderly withdrawal and even those who were involved in sending the Bundeswehr on the mission are now voicing doubts about ultimate success.”
In France, the left-wing Le Monde published an editorial titled “In Afghanistan, a Resignation and Malaise.” It says: “Whatever the U.S. president does, this decision adds to the impression of a fiasco that is emerging day by day, the interminable war in Afghanistan — already eight and a half years of fighting. … The situation is not reassuring. The Taliban insurgency is not ending. The Marjah-Kandahar operation, a laboratory of war, does not seem conclusive. The strange Mr. [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai delays the establishment of a political dialogue with the Taliban. In the United States and Europe, governments and public opinions are tired. They want an exit strategy and signs of success. They are not wrong.” Elsewhere, Le Monde says: “It is impossible to say whether Barack Obama will be able to regain control of the situation in Afghanistan.”
The center-right Le Figaro published an analysis titled “Policy Debate Divides the White House and the Military.” It says: “The McChrystal case highlights the debate that never ceases to divide the American leadership on Afghanistan. … This debate is about two approaches. On the one side are supporters of the ‘counter-insurgency and on the other those who advocate ‘counter-terrorism.’ Obama tried to reconcile these approaches by accepting the principle of the counter-insurgency but limiting it in time. He said he would begin withdrawing troops in the summer 2011 as a way of putting pressure on its military. But this compromise has only fuelled the fears of a hasty departure.”
The French weekly newsmagazine L’Express published an article titled “New Command, Same Strategy in Afghanistan Despite the Setbacks” It says: “In choosing General David Petraeus to lead the international coalition in Afghanistan, U.S. President Barack Obama has tried to show that his strategy remains unchanged, despite signs that indicate a risk of failure.”
In Italy, the center-right Il Giornali published commentary titled “Obama, Like Carter, No Longer Controls His Men.” It says: “The great communicator Barack Obama is showing to be a poor manager of people. The charismatic leader, seen up close, shows a different face than the candidate who won the presidential election: that of a man indecisive, too conservative, influenced by lobbies, unprepared on many issues. General McChrystal was stunned when, summoned to Washington for a strategy meeting, he realized that Obama did not even know who he was and ended the meeting in a ten-minute photo session. Obama seemed not to know anything about Afghanistan and not even to be interested in this. Since that incident, McChrystal developed a grudge vented with a journalist. Personal matter, someone will say. Maybe, but when an experienced man as he decides, consciously, to take such a step, it means that hierarchies are skipped, that mistrust is rampant and that the head does not comply. Many generals were furious with Bush, but no one dared to do what McChrystal did. … In short, Obama gives the impression of no longer controlling his men. And he will pay a high price for it. Look at the polls: they are merciless. Only a small minority of Americans have confidence in him. … He risks the same fate as [Jimmy] Carter. Or am I wrong?”
In Spain, the left-leaning El País published a commentary titled “The Outspoken Military,” which says: “The age of Obama has not changed the stereotype of the typical American military leader. On his rough manners, his terrible opinion of politicians, his contempt for the Europeans and especially the French, and what is worse, his poor respect for presidential authority and hierarchy between institutions, something that always raises the worst fears about their ideas on the relationship between civilian authority and military power.”
Another El País opinion article titled “Praetorian Fiber” says: “The Rolling Stone article may be, in its intention, a new means of putting pressure on the White House, in line with the leak to the press in late 2009 of a report calling for an increase of 40,000 soldiers. At that time Obama capitulated. Now, besides the intolerable act of indiscipline, the United States has inflicted upon itself a setback in the war in Afghanistan, where things are going from bad to worse, and hint at an inglorious end for Washington and NATO.”