Obama's Real McChrystal Problem: Afghanistan Plan in Trouble
McChrystal's MacArthur Moment was more than an embarrassment for
the White House - it was a reminder of just how badly Barack Obama's
"good war" in Afghanistan is going.
The challenge facing Obama in responding to his loose-lipped Afghan
commander has an obvious parallel in Harry Truman's firing of Douglas
MacArthur at the height of the Korean War.
But it may actually be more comparable to a more chronic presidential
leadership crisis - Abraham Lincoln's dilemma during the Civil War, when
he was forced to repeatedly reshuffle his general staff in the face of
vacillating public opinion, insubordination and, above all else,
uncertainty about how best to win a bloody war he couldn't afford to
"Afghanistan is a mess, and it's getting worse. To make matters worse,
the president's been dealing with internal squabbling on this for some
time," says Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America
Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, who has written
extensively on Afghanistan.
"If there's a bright side to all this, it's that the president has an
opportunity to reattach himself to a new policy, fire this guy and start
with something new," Clemons added. "It's a tremendous opportunity to
reset. But he can't do anything until he fires McChrystal."
The general has already apologized
for comments attributed to him and his leadership team in a caustic
Rolling Stone story, in which his aides reportedly portrayed his
commander in chief as a disengaged dilettante - and blasted Obama's
Afghanistan team as feckless. He's been summoned back to Washington to
face an infuriated Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who could
remove him from command, reprimand or demote him.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs declined to
say whether McChrystal would remain as the top U.S. commander in
"All options are on the table," Gibbs said.
Yet even if Obama sacks his Afghan commander, McChrystal's comments have
laid bare a nasty internal battle among members on Obama's joint
military-civilian Afghanistan team splintered by personality conflicts
and divided by approaches to ending the longest war in American history.
Underlying everything is a far bigger problem. Obama's strategy of
shifting the military's focus - and 30,000 troops - from Iraq to
Afghanistan hasn't yet yielded a major breakthrough. And it's not clear
how many troops he will be able to pull out of the country by next July,
his self-imposed deadline for commencing a withdrawal.
The disaster in the Gulf has obscured a steadily increasing drumbeat of
bad news and ill omens on Afghanistan. After mixed results in the
campaign to retake Marja, the Pentagon was forced to delay a critical
summer offensive in Kandahar, the cradle of the Afghan Taliban
insurgency. Earlier this year, simmering tensions between the
administration and Afghan President Hamid Karzai broke into the open
with U.S. officials sharply criticizing Karzai on issues ranging from
corruption and nepotism to the fitness of the country's fighting forces
to electoral reform - set against the backdrop of a resurgent Taliban.
Then came Gen. David Petraeus's fainting spell as he testified about
Afghanistan before a Senate committee earlier this month, which many on
the Hill saw, fairly or not, as a bad omen.
lack of tangible success seems to be splitting official Washington,
slowly but inexorably, into camps of hawks and doves, with Gates bearing
the flag for those who favor a relatively open-ended large-scale
commitment of troops in Afghanistan, with Vice President Joe Biden and
others pushing for a far more scaled down approach. Obama is somewhere
in the middle.
People close to Obama say the president recognizes the McChrystal
situation isn't just about any one general but recalibrating policy
after a delay of the summer offensive in Kandahar and harmonizing a
fractious team of military and civilian advisers.
The president, they hope, will use the McChrystal imbroglio to iron out
differences among an array of key players, including Gates, Biden,
Petraeus and a pair of strong-willed State Department advisers - AfPak
troubleshooter Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S.
ambassador to Afghanistan.
It won't be easy. Obama - whose appeal to the Democratic base is rooted
in his opposition to the Iraq War - faces strong popular headwinds on
the war, with poll after poll showing a majority of Americans supporting
some kind of withdrawal.
Many in the military still view the Afghanistan war as winnable and
argue that this biggest threat is defeatism back home.
Rolling Stone piece, freelance reporter Michael Hastings,
illustrates the difficulty in selling a rapid drawdown to the Pentagon:
"[F]acts on the ground, as history has proven, offer little deterrent to
a military determined to stay the course. Even those closest to
McChrystal know that the rising anti-war sentiment at home doesn't begin
to reflect how deeply f----d up things are in Afghanistan. ‘If
Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would
become even less popular,' a senior adviser to McChrystal says."
Such realism," Hastings adds, "doesn't prevent advocates of
counterinsurgency from dreaming big: Instead of beginning to withdraw
troops next year, as Obama promised, the military hopes to ramp up its
counterinsurgency campaign even further. ‘There's a possibility we could
ask for another surge of U.S. forces next summer if we see success
here,' a senior military official in Kabul tells me."
Gates hasn't gone that far. But he has expressed optimism the U.S. has a
chance of prevailing if commanders are allowed to finish the job -
which includes winning the hearts and minds of civilians.
That seems to put him into conflict with Biden, an Afghanistan skeptic,
who recently told Obama biographer Jonathan Alter to "bet on" on a
significant percentage of U.S. troops departing the country when
withdrawal begins in July 2011.
Last fall, when the White House was in the midst of reviewing its Afghan
strategy, McChrystal said a counterterrorism strategy, Biden's approach
to the war, would lead to "Chaos-istan," during a question and answer
session at the Institute of International and Strategic Studies in
That comment led to a meeting with
Obama on Air Force One, which was parked on a tarmac in Copenhagen where
Obama had gone to promote Chicago's unsuccessful bid for the Olympics.
The White House pushed back against the anecdote, arguing that Biden had
been rushing out the door when Alter quoted him - and Gates questioned
But administration sources say Biden's remarks were in keeping with his
long-standing opinions - and McChrystal reportedly recognized Biden as
One McChrystal aide's nickname for the vice-president:
Joe "Bite Me."
Like everything else surrounding the war, opinions on how Obama
should punish McChrystal are divided.
The president made a misstep by summoning McChrystal to the White House,
says John Ullyot, a Republican strategist and former press secretary
for the Senate Armed Services Committee. Obama's decision to summon the
general to Washington has plucked the disciplinary decision out of the
military chain of command and politicized it, Ullyot says, while giving
the media an extra day to ruminate on dissension in the ranks.
"While it's easy to say yes you should fire him, you're in the middle of
an operation here, and you've got to really worry about the kids on the
ground," said Larry Korb, a defense expert with the Center for American
Progress, who noted that McChrystal wasn't quoted directly in the piece
"If I were McChrystal, I would offer my resignation and then if the
president takes it, you go gracefully, and it's a win-win," Korb said.
But a trio of Senate hawks often critical of Obama's foreign policy
stances - John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe
Lieberman (I-Conn.) - suggested they would support McChrystal's removal.
"We have the highest respect for Gen. McChrystal and honor his brave
service and sacrifice to our nation. Gen. McChrystal's comments, as
reported in Rolling Stone, are inappropriate and inconsistent with the
traditional relationship between commander in chief and the military,"
they wrote in a statement released Tuesday.
"The decision concerning Gen. McChrystal's future is a decision to be
made by the president of the United States."
Jen DiMascio contributed to this report.