23 June 2010

McChrystal Out, Petreaus In, Challenge Remains

A day after Rolling Stone published a profile piece of General Stanley McChrystal in which McChrystal and several of his senior staff made caustic, derisive, and arguably insubordinate comments about Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and several members of Obama's administration, Obama fired McChrystal, replacing him with General David Petraeus, head of the US Army's Central Command (and, ironically, technically McChrystal's superior).

In many respects, Petraeus is an easy choice to make for McChrystal's replacement.  As the architect of the successful "surge" strategy in Iraq that for many has been the model of what needs to take place in Afghanistan, he is arguably the Army's foremost expert on counterinsurgency strategies and tactics (COIN, in the military argot).  As the general many credit with salvaging the situation on the ground in Iraq, Petraeus is quite popular with Republicans in Congress (there has been considerable speculation as to whether Petraeus would be drafted by the Republicans for the 2012  Presidential elections) Indeed, that the new assignment is technically a demotion for Petraeus only serves to underscore the heft Petraeus brings to the table.

What Petraeus does not bring is a substantial alteration to the situation in Afghanistan.  US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Obama's diplomatic lead in Kabul, has never walked back the opposition to a "surge" strategy he voiced  last fall in a series of classified cables to Obama (that were subsequently leaked to the New York Times).  Neither has Vice President Biden, who was quoted by Jonathan Alter in The Promise that "In July of 2011, you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out, bet on it."--an assertion Secretary of Defense Robert Gates emphatically rejected earlier this week.  Despite assertions by Obama in announing McChrystal's ouster that he could tolerate debate but not division, divisions over Afghanistan are everywhere in Obama's Administration:
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gone along with the project, but Vice President Joe Biden—who might have been secretary of state had the cards fallen in a slightly different way—has not. Divisions within the administration grow by the day.
Nor does Petraeus have large numbers of troops in his back pocket to take to Afghanistan.  He flies to Kabul alone, to take command of McChrystal's men and execute McChrystal's strategy, on the eve of a major push to retake Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city.  The last of the 30,000 troops allocated by Obama to the Afghanistan "surge" are just now arriving on the battlefield--delays in their arrival have been a principal frustration of the Kandahar offensive.  Secretary Gates is counseling patience, to give the strategy time to succeed, but the political reality is that time is running out on Afghanistan; the July 2011 pullout date is fixed in the minds of many, and Americans, by a 53-44 percent margin, do not count the Afghanistan war as one worth fighting--and certainly one not worth American lives.

By replacing McChrystal with Petraeus, Obama is essentially rebutting the crux of McChrystal's Rolling Stone complaints, a lack of strong support for the troops.  However, if all Obama does is replace McChrystal with Petraeus, he will have largely validated McChrystal's complaint.

He may be gone, but McChrystal has managed to box Obama in yet again.

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