Unsurprisingly, President Obama has fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of our effort in Afghanistan, for remarks made in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine.
That’s unfortunate, but most people saw it as something that had to be done, given the importance of our Constitutional tradition of civilian control of the military. While a great general, his remarks couldn’t be allowed to stand without punishment.
That said, now what? Given the public remarks of McChrystal and his staff, it seems obvious to any fair observer that our Afghanistan strategy isn’t hitting on all cylinders and “team work” at the top is a buzz word, not a reality.
Maybe what would be easier to puzzle out is what shouldn’t happen now. McChrystal was the architect of the present strategy in Afghanistan. What shouldn’t happen, and would most likely spell final disaster there, is to again change strategies. All of the surge troops deployed to push that strategy forward won’t be in place until August. While McChrystal had asked for 40,000 troops, he only received 30,000. Regardless, the surge, in full, has yet to fully begin.
As we all know, the military piece is only a part of the solution, and, frankly, is a relatively minor one when talking about COIN and the peculiarities of the Afghan political landscape. A huge amount of work remains to be done on the civilian side of things there.
And, apparently, McChrystal is the only one who understands how important it is to form a personal relationship with the government and its leaders as a step toward reforming it and getting it to perform properly and competently with the goal of having it become a real national government:
McChrystal may hold the closest relationship of any American in what often has been a strained relationship with the Karzai government, says Jim Phillips, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. The Obama administration has been critical of Karzai’s efforts to fight corruption, although it has dialed back the rhetoric in recent weeks. “In Afghanistan, personal relations are critical,” Phillips says. “It’s difficult to build trust and working relationships. If McChrystal is suddenly replaced that would be a major blow to the Afghan and American military relationship and the Afghan and American governments’ relationship.”
The civilian team in place – Amb. Eikenberry, Holbrooke and others including the VP – have formed adversarial, even confrontational relationships with Afghanistan’s president and some government ministers. In an honor/shame society, that sort of a relationship is totally counter-productive. Unfortunately, with McChrystal gone, the only buffer to that sort of treatment has been removed as well as any reason for the Afghan government to cooperate.
Despite the remarks that sparked the relief, it apparent that the civilian side of the situation in Afghanistan has not been productive and may be staffed by the wrong people using the wrong approach. A full review of their actions and accomplishments (or lack thereof) to date is more than warranted given how little progress has been made in improving the governing ability of the Karzai government.
But back to the command options. It is critical that the Obama administration signal its intent to continue with the McCrystal/Obama strategy. It appears with the naming of Gen. Petraeus as the new commander, that is exactly the sort of a signal being sent. While it is a little of a step-down for Petraeus, politically and most likely tactically and strategically, it is an excellent choice. He is certainly familiar with the strategy and while he may tweak it, he’ll probably keep it mostly intact.
However, it will be interesting to see how Petraeus interacts with Eikenberry and Holbrooke. Remember the effectiveness of the Petraeus/Crocker relationship. No such dynamic has ever existed in Afghanistan. While the civilian side can probably skate on the McChrystal relationship, they’re going to have a much more difficult time doing the same thing with a more politically savvy David Petraeus, who most people consider to be a national hero.
Secondly, and just as importantly, the administration needs to make it clear that their June 2011 withdrawal date is “conditions based” instead of “firm”. A firm date is a signal to the bad guys that all they have to do is hunker down and wait it out. Making it conditions based makes the point that we’re not going to abandon Afghanistan. That, in and of itself, would go a long way to helping change the attitude in Kabul. If the “firm” commitment is kept, the Karzai government has no reason or incentive to make the effort to cooperate with the US strategy and may go out on its own to make a deal with the Taliban.
Keeping the “firm” withdrawal date can and will do more damage to the effort in Afghanistan than the Taliban could ever do.
Lastly, a caution – it is being reported by numerous sources that “the present strategy is falling out of favor” with many of Obama’s close advisors. Another change in strategy would also be fatal to the effort there.
As it happens, and as mentioned, Petraeus is a good choice both politically and strategically. But our effort in Afghanistan is in more trouble than an intemperate general’s remarks, and if some more big changes aren’t made, mostly on the civilian side, it is going to fail.