PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA HAD NO CHOICE Wednesday but to remove Gen. Stanley McChrystal and refocus on the larger job of salvaging a palatable strategy for Afghanistan. The comments McChrystal made in Rolling Stone magazine were not overtly insubordinate to the nation's commander in chief. But his remarks and those from his unnamed aides revealed a lack of judgment and a level of contempt for civilian control of the military that could not be overlooked. Obama's smart decision to replace McChrystal with the widely admired Gen. David Petraeus should steady the situation.
The president had his own self-serving reasons to emphasize Wednesday that he and McChrystal did not differ on policy. It was Obama, after all, who hand-picked McChrystal to prosecute what the president envisioned would be the closing stage of the war. McChrystal also designed the surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan that Obama reluctantly embraced in December. But McChrystal's comments, and those of unnamed members of his staff, betrayed a loss of faith in the political leadership at the White House. Cheap shots are one thing; it is another when the allied military command in the host country undercuts the diplomatic channel between Washington and Kabul, as if Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not difficult enough.
In selecting Petraeus to assume command immediately, Obama has acted swiftly and decisively to bring the military in line, reassure the allies and quiet carping in Congress. With more than 90,000 American troops in Afghanistan and casualties rising, there has never been a more vital time to bring a unity of effort to the war. McChrystal's offensive against the Taliban is slower and harder than anticipated. Karzai has not moved against corruption since winning re-election, appears unfazed by the U.S. plan to withdraw forces next year and may be cutting his own deals with the very Taliban leaders the United States is trying to root out. American troops on the ground are losing faith, the allies have lost their stomach and the American people are left to wonder what the sacrifice has been worth.
Afghanistan was home to the plotters of the 9/11 attacks, and it was the right war nine years ago. It was the right decision in December for Obama to make one more concerted military push. The United States still has a vital national security interest in ensuring that the Taliban do not regain power, and the best way to do that is to look beyond Karzai and build the Afghan central government for the long term.
Whether that can be accomplished remains in doubt. Petraeus embraces the counterinsurgency strategy and was much more successful in making it work in Iraq. But he needs to make his own clear-eyed assessment about the wisdom of continuing to try to make it work in Afghanistan. Obama said in December he would know by the end of this year if the strategy is working. Halfway to that milepost, the answer is no.