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Obama's Real McChrystal Problem: Afghanistan Plan in Trouble

by Glenn Thrush

Gen. Stanley 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 Gen. Stanley McChrystal has an obvious parallel in Harry Truman’s firing of Douglas MacArthur at the height of the Korean War. (AP photo composite by POLITICO) 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 lose.

"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 Afghanistan.

"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.

That 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.

In the 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 London.

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 Alter's veracity.

But administration sources say Biden's remarks were in keeping with his long-standing opinions - and McChrystal reportedly recognized Biden as an adversary. 

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 disparaging Obama.

"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.

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