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The McChrystal Affair has turned–at least for a day–the war in Afghanistan into something that Washington understands best: an inside-the-Beltway tale where the important questions are who said what about whom in the press.
Yet McChrystal’s resignation–whether accepted or not–shifts the spotlight from the loose-lipped commander (and his very stupid staff) to President Barack Obama.
Will McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy be dismissed along with the general?
Even as Michael Hastings’ article in Rolling Stone prepared the noose for McChrystal, it’s clear that the real target is the president’s highly conditional commitment to Afghanistan. “There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word ‘victory’ when he talks about Afghanistan,” Hastings wrote. “Winning, it would seem, is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge. “
The fact is that Stanley McChrystal was never “in charge.” The commander-in-chief is in charge, whether he wants to be or not. And even though the politicos in the White House–as though reliving the Vietnam War–have been anxious to try to shift the blame to the military, this is Obama’s and America’s war.
But neither was McChrystal “in charge” in the sense of setting the military strategy. As Hastings quotes Vice President Biden, this has been a “gradual plan of counterterrorism,” not a full-bore counterinsurgency. McChrystal was denied the two things most needed for success: enough time and enough troops.
The time deficiencies are the most obvious. Even while announcing the “surge”–Obama even used the Bush “s-word”–at West Point last December, the president also declared he would begin drawing down U.S. forces in July 2011.
Hamid Karzai, sensing changeable weather and not wanting to end his days swinging from the lamppost as other Afghan leaders have done, immediately increased his “hedging”–to put it euphemistically–behavior. Likewise the Pakistanis, even though the Taliban had gotten out of control and were now killing their presidential candidates and sacking their vacation homes. Even U.S. military officers talked openly of the “endgame,” speculating on the terms of retreat.
Nor was the troop surge a repeat of the Iraq surge. It amounted to no more than half what the situation called for.
And despite the president’s promise that they would “deploy at the fastest possible pace” in “the first part of 2010,” the fact is that the final brigade won’t arrive in Afghanistan in November 2010–just one month before the administration conducts another “strategy review” that will determine the pace of the drawdown. Further, with allies using our surge as an opportunity to withdraw their forces, and with security proving to be tenuous even in the northern provinces of Afghanistan, what’s being asked of U.S. troops is greater than planned.
With his strategy stillborn from the start, McChrystal fought with one eye on Washington, making compromises that might have had immediate rewards–but almost certainly included long-term costs–to convince the administration to stay the course. As he told Hastings about the extended and excruciating White House strategy review of last summer, “I was selling an unsellable position” that the president was not buying then, and hasn’t yet bought.
Yet no matter how he spins it, these decisions are in the end the president’s responsibility.
The commander-in-chief cannot say: “The general made me do it.” Nor can he continue, as he did in obfuscating whether he would accept McChrystal’s resignation, that “Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates feels the same way.” The real test of Obama’s commitment to success in this war is not whether he rids himself of a troublesome general, but whether he rids himself of all the other troublesome elements of his “team of rivals”–Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, “AfPak Czar” Richard Holbrooke, to name two–and muzzles the vice president.
Donald Rumsfeld famously lamented that you go to war with the military you’ve got, not necessarily the one you’d like to have. The same is true of presidents. The question is whether both troops and commander-in-chief can adapt to the war they’ve got rather than the one they’d prefer.
It’s a question that Stanley McChrystal is forcing Barack Obama to answer.
Thomas Donnelly is a resident fellow at AEI.
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