McChrystal Out, Petraeus In, Strategy Stays The Same
Boy was I wrong on my prediction.
In a publicized address to the nation Wednesday afternoon, President Barack Obama accepted General Stanley McChrystal’s resignation, citing the commander’s “poor judgment” over the Rolling Stone article. Sure, the General was let go because of a juvinile act of insubordination, but can you blame the president for making this decision? If I was in his shoes, I may have made the same exact judgment. The last thing the United States needs is a general who throws insults at the upper echelons of the White House national-security staff. Remarks like those tend to divide an administration, and a divided administration is not what you want when cooperation is a must in a conflict as complicated as Afghanistan.
But in a way, the McChrystal firing is only a sub-headline to a much larger story. Is this going to affect the way the U.S. Military fights the war? More importantly, will the McChrystal removal make the enemy more confident about its own operations in the war effort?
The answer to the latter is absolutely. Newsweek reports that Taliban commanders have been watching and listening with glee over the political firestorm that is occurring in Washington as a result of McChrystal’s comments. To them, a split in America’s leadership only brings positivity to their own ranks, reiterating the belief that the United States has no strategic direction inside Afghanistan. American infighting over the course of the war only adds skepticism among NATO allies as well, some of whom are withdrawing their entire troop contingent this summer (like the Netherlands and Canada). And sadly, Taliban commanders may be just in celebrating McChrystal’s removal…the American public is just about sick and tired of Afghanistan, and the White House is undergoing a tremendous amount of criticism about the lack of military and political success within the country as a whole.
The former question (is this going to affect the way the U.S. Military fights the war?) is a much more difficult one to answer. Tactics probably won’t change very much, because the man who reinvented counterinsurgency doctrine (General David Petraeus) has been tapped to takeover the U.S. Command. Both Petraeus and McChrystal are highly supportive of counterinsurgency, with Petraeus turning Iraq around with the same strategy a few years earlier and McChrystal following Petraeus’ lead in Afghanistan during his tenure. So “winning hearts and minds” (whatever that might entail at this point) is still the name of the game.
The problem is accessibility. McChrystal had a very close relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the only official who was quick to lend his personal support to the general after the Rolling Stone story was published online. The two men were more than respectful to one another, and Karzai has frequently hinted that McChrystal was the only American he could trust in the entire campaign. Petraeus now has the unfortunate task of rebuilding this trust, which is absolutely key if the U.S. wishes to establish a semi-functioning national government in Kabul (which might not be possible anyway, given Afghanistan’s history). But if his record is anything to go by, this probably won’t be much of an issue for Petraeus; many Middle Eastern leaders already view him for what he is, which is an honest and intelligent person.
What McChrystal will do next is anyone’s guess. He has a lot of empty time to fill, so maybe he’ll just retire into the sunset (although his roots in the special-forces might prompt him to stay). But the narrative just got a little more interesting.
One more question to consider: Did Holbrooke and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry have a say during this entire process? Considering that both men have had public disagreements with McChrystal in the past, I wouldn’t doubt it.
-Daniel R. DePetris