[UPDATE By choosing David Petraeus to replace Stan McChrystal, the president hasn't improved the chance that he will get Afghanistan policy right. Petraeus, of course, is the Hero of the Iraq Surge, and he literally wrote the handbook on counterinsurgency (COIN). ]
Members of the counterinsurgency (COIN) cult, various neoconservatives and editorial writers for the Washington Post ought to stop hyperventilating about how they’d be shocked, shocked if President Obama fires General McChrystal today. After all, they cheered lustily when Obama fired General McKiernan a year ago. With solemn hypocrisy, those same COIN cheerleaders now argue that it would be horrible to fire the commander of the war before the job’s done. Well, why wasn’t it horrible the last time?
A story line that developing in the media—fed, no doubt by the same COIN cultists – is that the devastating Rolling Stone profile was about personalities and insults, not politics and policy differences. I beg to differ. The underlying theme of the Rolling Stone piece, if you haven’t read it in its entirety, makes clear that McChrystal and Co. are deeply unhappy with the civvies back home, and not because they don’t enjoy dancing in a drunken circle in a Paris bistro late at night singing, “Afghanistan! Afghanistan!” like McChrystal’s gang of frat boys, jocks and other assorted types. The reason McChrystal and Co. are so angry and resentful is that President Obama has set a deadline of July, 2011, for the start of a withdrawal from Afghanistan. That’s it. Nothing else.
McChrystal wants a president who’s gung ho committed to the fight, like, well President W. was committed to the one in Iraq. In Obama, they ain’t got one.
Consider, for instance, the “statement” from the Heritage Foundation issued Tuesday:
The artificial Afghanistan withdrawal deadline has obviously caused some of our military leaders to question our strategy in Afghanistan.
That deadline, which President Barack Obama announced to the American people, the military, our allies and our enemies on December 1, 2009, has provoked many—including the government in Kabul, the Afghan people, the military in Pakistan, and our enemies the terrorists—to question America’s resolve to win the War in Afghanistan.
More disconcerting for the American people is that the timeline appears to be putting tremendous unnecessary pressure on our armed forces to accomplish their task: victory on the ground.
We don’t need an artificial timeline for withdrawal. We need a strategy for victory.
McChrystal couldn’t have said it better. The fact is, the Obama administration is at war with itself. Last summer, McChrystal engaged in a guerrilla-style insurrection against the White House to pressure Obama to escalate the war. He won, sort of, when Obama caved in to the Pentagon’s pressure and—for the second time in year—added tens of thousands of additional US cannon fodder to the unwinnable war. Remember the elements of that McChrystal effort: he let it be know that he might resign in protest if he didn’t get what he wanted; he leaked a copy of his war-mongering report to the Washington Post, to make public the fact that the military wanted more, more, more; he agreed to a fawning profile on 60 Minutes to tout his brilliance and charisma; he flew to London where he flat-out dissed Vice President Biden’s less militaristic approach to the Af-Pak conflict; and his boss, General Petraeus, dropped hints that he might consider running for president in 2012 as a Republican. As a result, Obama demanded that he fly from London to Copenhagen, where the president read the general the riot act on a tarmac aboard Air Force One.
So when McChrystal’s boys joke like glue-sniffing seventh graders that Vice President Biden’s name ought to be “Bite Me,” when they make homophobic slurs about French diplomats, give each other the finger and so on, at bottom what they’re mad about is the same thing that General MacArthur was mad about six decades ago: that damned thing called civilian control of the military.
Unfortunately, President Obama isn’t comfortable with the fact that he’s commander-in-chief either. The president bungled it big time last year, when he had a chance to fire McChrystal for insubordination. Instead, the president capitulated. He gave McChrystal what he wanted, or nearly: 30,000 troops. On top of the 20,000-plus he’d added six months earlier. At the time, Obama had a choice: instead, he could have declared that the war in Afghanistan had to wind down, not intensify. He could have outlined a drawdown of American forces modeled on the Iraq withdrawal. Instead, Obama gave McChrystal his troops, and then he added the timetable by declaring that a withdrawal of forces would begin next July. To Obama, that must have seemed like a Solomon-like baby-slicing.
But why, exactly, couldn’t Obama have upped the timetable to, say, July 2010, and not added more troops? Because, to his everlasting discredit, Obama thought first about domestic politics, not long-suffering Afghanistan. Fearing the wrath of the right—and God knows, it’s horrible to be yelled at by Joe Lieberman and John McCain!—he placated the military... and then he placated the left, including war critics on Capitol Hill, by adding the July 2011 deadline. That’s crass. What it’s not is acting like a by-God commander-in-chief.
Now Obama has another chance to get it right. With McChrystal out of the way, he can act forcefully to ensure that everyone on the team gets the message that the war is drawing to a close. As Vice President Biden says: “In July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it.”
I’m not betting on it. Not just yet.