Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

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

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**Comments courtesy of Stephen Walt, Peter Feaver, and Kori Schake**


10 Responses

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  1. Sir_Mixxalot1 said, on June 25, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    A number of blogs and mainstream news outlets are wrong if they think the civilian leadership in Kabul is the problem — it is the architecture of that government (ie. centralized) that WE made.

    Afghanistan will NEVER be ruled from a centralized government in Kabul no matter if we send 5 million troops there and change 100 generals.

    There are a 1000 valleys in Afganistan and they each have their local rulers. And thus it will.

  2. LobeWiper said, on June 25, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    In November of last year, Mearsheimer wrote the opinions below. I think he is right–continuing to fight the Afghan war has very much to do with American politics, rather than strategic necessities.

    “In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, it simply does not matter whether the United States wins or loses. It makes no sense for the Obama administration to expend more blood and treasure to vanquish the Taliban. The United States should accept defeat and immediately begin to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan.

    Of course, President Obama will never do such a thing. Instead, he will increase the American commitment to Afghanistan, just as Lyndon Johnson did in Vietnam in 1965. The driving force in both cases is domestic politics. Johnson felt that he had to escalate the fight in Vietnam because otherwise the Republicans would lambaste him for “losing Vietnam,” the same way they accused President Harry Truman of “losing China” in the late 1940s.

    Obama and his fellow Democrats know full well that if the United States walks away from Afghanistan now, the Republicans will accuse them of capitulating to terrorism and undermining our security. And this charge will be leveled at them for decades to come, harming Democrats at the polls come election time. The Democrats have no intention of letting that happen.”


  3. Aurangzeb Khan said, on June 25, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    Why America has FAILED in Afghanistan;

    the real reason for the failure of General McChrystal

    and why President Karzai threatened to join the Taliban –

    Obama’s War – Tariq Ali – Four Videos

    During his presidential campaign, President Obama pledged more troops, ground intrusions and drone attacks to end the war in Afghanistan.

    This is a promise he has kept, but it won’t work.

    In this lecture Tariq Ali talks about why the war is unwinnable and can only lead to a bloody stalemate.

    The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull prevented Tariq Ali from delivering this lecture at the School of Visual Arts in New York on 19 April as planned; it was instead broadcast from a studio in London.

    Four Must Watch Videos here:


    • Nur Al-Cubicle said, on June 25, 2010 at 5:32 pm

      I like Tarik Ali and he laid out very early in the game why the US would find itself in this debacle.

      Counter-insurgency involves internment of the population, a network of paid informants, kidnappings, torture and occupation -which the US populace did not tolerate during Viet Nam and will not tolerate today. Petreaus may have a PhD, and may have written about murderous counter-insurgency, that’s not going to save him.

  4. TheBlueAmerican said, on June 25, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    Hate to say it but we can’t have anything that resembles a victory as long as Karzai is there. The worst part is the Chinese will get all those mineral resources just like they got the oil in Iraq. All that United States blood spilled for nothing. All I got was a bankrupted America. Can someone please explain to me how a country pays for 2 wars with tax cuts?

    This war is now America’s longest. Why did that happen? I would also like to know what victory resemebles in the AfPak region.

  5. Dr. Kuchbhi said, on June 25, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    ALL of the Taliban leadership is in Pakistan.
    Until we have the cojones to tell the Paki army and the ISI that they need to play ball or face the music, we’re subjecting our soldiers and generals to an unwinnable war.

    Waiting for the Paki army and ISI to get therapy and attack the problem on their side of the fence is a disservice to our troops.

    The problem is that the Paki military is smart enough to call the drone attacks, the militant takeover of Swat and other internal failures as a failure of their “civilian” government. So unless they themselves feel the sting of the “stick”, our “carrot and stick” policy is impotent.

    We need to hurt them to have a shot in this fight. Else we’ll soon see the Taliban in power in Afghanistan and the Pakistanis telling us AGAIN that they have no control over a government of a different country.

    We can postpone the problem till it gets bigger and more expensive or we can address it now with a big fat stick….

  6. Dan said, on June 25, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    “It is not a change in policy”

    There is no “do-over” here. Like Dr. Walt said, the decision to relieve General Stanley McChrystal from his command is not a major development. CNN, Fox, and MSNBC obviously think it is (besides the oil spill, all three cable news networks have been struggling to find worthwhile stories), but in the long run, the overall strategy is basically the same. Both men- Petraeus and McChrystal- firmly believe in the tenants of counterinsurgency doctrine; both men were intimately involved with the President’s national security staff during last fall’s Afghan policy review; both men served in Iraq; and both have entered their positions when their theater was going badly (Petraeus in 2007 and McChrystal in 2009). And besides, it seems like some people have forgotten that Gen. Petraeus re-invented COIN in the U.S. Military and brought it back into the ranks of the army (COIN was actually used successfully in Vietnam, a few years before the U.S. left).

    So to think that the strategy and the course of the war will change overnight is ill suited. “Winning hearts and minds” is still priority number one, and southern Afghanistan is still the central theater in this war (although the north is starting to feel the heat as well). The only difference is that Petraeus is now in command, and McChrystal is now on the sidelines.

    If there is one aspect of the war that will hopefully stay the same, it is the military’s relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which is still relatively close compared to his relationship with Eikenberry and Holbrooke. There is only one potential consequence of removing McChrystal…Karzai may retreat further from America’s grasp and lose more trust in NATO than he has already lost (McChrystal was the only man that Karzai actually got along with). Although from Petraeus’ track-record, this shouldn’t be a problem.

  7. StromHawk60 said, on June 25, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    Put Odierno in at CENTCOM

    problem solved for monitoring Iraq(n).

    There may not be a more trusted officer in the region. The JFCOM assignment seems like…a waste of his enormous talents.

  8. Regis18 said, on June 25, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    I know of no one in the active military who would have thought that GEN McChrystal would survive the Rolling Stone article. Maybe Lincoln would have tolerated it but his record vis a vis McClellan was not the stuff of which myths are made. He should have fired McClellan long before he did.

    There are major problems in Afghanistan administration’s including this administration’s high level personnel and the ambivalent strategy. None of that exuses what GEN McCsrystal allowed his staff to express those disloyal views thinking they could do so with impunity. I will remind Miss Schake and Cohen that the War in Iraq is not won and that the Bush decision to start the War in Iraq is larger than any other reason for our precarious position in Afghanistan.

    It bothers me no end that a person of Lori Schake’s views has anything to do with West Point and the education of young officers. Her views expressed in yesterday’s New York Times article were absurd as was the title. No GEN is irreplaceable. I am a West Point grad and former Army strategist. I may start subscribing to the view that maybe West Point has already served its useful purpose in the life of this nation and and should be shut down if her shallow views on the subject of Gen McChrystal are indicative of the thinking that is going on there now.


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