Whether or not Obama decides to sack General McChrystal today, the president is unlikely to use the opportunity to change the overall course of his Afghanistan strategy. None of the sniping and lockerroom insults captured in the Rolling Stone piece questioned the tactics or resources that Obama has dedicated to the war. And the counterinsurgency approach that Obama has embraced in the country has basically been what McChrystal has wanted all along. And the administration is unlikely to reconsider its basic plan—an increase of 30,000 new troops until July 2011, when Afghan security forces are supposed to start taking over.
But maybe now really is the time to be asking the tough questions about how Obama’s war is going—and what both civilian and military commanders could be doing better. It certainly hasn’t been smooth sailing over the last few months, as Spencer Ackerman explains:
The past two months in Afghanistan have been brutal. Since returning from a Washington summit with Obama, President Hamid Karzai acrimoniously parted ways with two of his top security officials, men trusted by the U.S. who believe Karzai’s attempts at outreach to the Taliban to bring the war to a close represent capitulation. A United Nations report released this weekend documented a rise in violence in southern Afghanistan ahead of a crucial attempt at pushing the Taliban out of Kandahar, the south’s most populous city.
McChrystal had to slow down his push to provide what he calls a “rising tide” of security for Kandahar in order to secure buy-in from residents, as Karzai pledged his support for the operation at a mostly supportive local shura only last Sunday.What remains unclear from any Kandahar planning is the effect even a successful operation will have on the overall strength of al-Qaeda’s allies in Afghanistan — and al-Qaeda itself, across the border in Pakistan.
Thomas Friedman also has a blistering column today, accusing Obama of failing to answer basic questions about the surge:
If our strategy is to use U.S. forces to clear the Taliban and help the Afghans put in place a decent government so they can hold what is cleared, how can that be done when President Hamid Karzai, our principal ally, openly stole the election and we looked the other way? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others in the administration told us not to worry: Karzai would have won anyway; he’s the best we’ve got; she knew how to deal with him and he would come around. Well, I hope that happens. But my gut tells me that when you don’t call things by their real name, you get in trouble. Karzai stole the election, and we said: No problem, we’re going to build good governance on the back of the Kabul mafia.
The McChrystal flap has already ignited more news coverage and punditry about the US strategy in Afghanistan than we’ve seen in many, many months. (“This morning everyone in Washington everyone is a war correspondent,” tweeted Slate’s John Dickerson as the Rolling Stone article was first making the rounds.) I suspect that the attention will be fleeting, given the increasing brevity of the news cycle (remember Elena Kagan?) and lawmakers’ own interest in keeping the focus on the economy and domestic issues in a tough election year. But the war effort could certainly benefit from the heightened scrutiny and demand for accountability that we’ve seen in the last 24 hours. Wishful thinking, perhaps?
Update: All the major news networks are reporting that McChrystal has been relieved of his command and will be replaced by General David Petraeus, who is currently heading up US Central Command.