Loose Canons

McChrystal Lite Becomes Petraeus

President Obama did what he had to do -- except clarify the strategy or make victory more likely in Afghanistan.

By 6.24.10

President Obama did what he had to do in relieving Gen. Stanley McChrystal of command yesterday. But despite the appointment of Gen. David H. Petraeus to succeed McChrystal, Obama did nothing to clarify the strategy or make victory more likely in Afghanistan.

Obama had to fire McChrystal because the general was a repeat offender. Last October, when Obama was deliberating McChrystal's request for a troop surge into Afghanistan, McChrystal made an unusual speech to the IISS think tank in London, publicly -- though not directly -- pressuring the president to accept his recommendations.

As a result of that speech, Obama ordered McChrystal to join him on Air Force One, where he chewed the general out. After the Rolling Stone article was leaked, Obama had to either fire McChrystal or abdicate his control over the Afghanistan conflict.

Announcing that he would replace McChrystal with Petraeus, Obama insisted that this was a change in personnel not policy. And taking a line from the Beatles, he called on his national security team to come together. He said he welcomed debate on his team but wouldn't tolerate division among them. But he will tolerate -- even encourage -- vagueness in what the goal in Afghanistan is.

Obama himself is entirely vague. In his announcement of McChrystal's relief, he said, "We have a clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban's momentum. We are going to build Afghan capacity. We are going to relentlessly apply pressure on Al Qaeda and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same."

Gen. Petraeus, in his congressional testimony last week, said that Obama's plan to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July of next year was "etched in stone" but seemed to contradict himself in saying that the rate of withdrawal would be dependent on "conditions on the ground."

Petraeus was, along with McChrystal, the architect of Obama's nation-building plan. And, like McChrystal, he was uncharacteristically vocal last year in pushing Obama into it. Last September -- while Obama was pondering McChrystal's recommendation -- Petraeus said that our goals in Afghanistan will have to be changed -- meaning adjusted downward -- if the president rejected the strategy revisions and increased resources he and McChrystal said were needed.

But after that, Obama decided on a "McChrystal lite" strategy, granting the general 30,000 more troops, less than the 40-60,000 he'd asked for. And Obama imposed the timeline for withdrawal. Now, in his speech yesterday, Obama seems to have -- as Petraeus predicted -- adjusted our goals downward.

The goals Obama set for Afghanistan -- like the jobs "created or saved" by the Obama "stimulus" last year -- are meaningless. They are political, and not susceptible of objective measurement. How can you "break the Taliban's momentum" in a way that they cannot recover it in a day, a month, or a year? You can't, because the Taliban -- as McChrystal's April report on the war said -- are supported by Iran and other Islamic nations. What we "break" today, they repair tonight like the North Vietnamese did a generation ago.

Obama has put Petraeus in an impossible position. As Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo) said yesterday, "General Petraeus is an outstanding military leader, but even he can't win in Afghanistan if the President continues to insist on an arbitrary withdrawal date -- a fact our enemies are counting on and our allies fear."

Though Petraeus has been involved with the Afghanistan strategy from the outset, it was McChrystal who had the relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the direct command of daily operations for the counterinsurgency. Even Petraeus will have to take some period of time to get up to speed, making the "etched in stone" deadline of July 2011 impossible to meet.

And Obama didn't solve the problems that drove McChrystal to distraction. Special envoy Richard Holbrooke will still flit in and out, as will Amb. Karl Eikenberry. Both reportedly have awful relationships with Karzai and complicate the issues that confound the inconstant operation of NATO troops in Afghanistan. (Remember that McChrystal's staff, in the Rolling Stone piece, had some pointed comments about the ISAF force, saying the acronym stands for "I Suck at Fighting" and "In Sandals and Flip-flops.")

Petraeus takes over at a time when the fight isn't going our way. The big operation in Marjah was -- as McChrystal characterized it -- "a bleeding ulcer," and the even larger operation to drive the Taliban out of Kandahar city was delayed by McChrystal until this fall to allow time to fix what's going wrong in Marjah.

At the same time, all of our allies -- including Karzai -- may be losing faith in the fight. Less than two weeks ago, the New York Times reported that Amrullah Saleh, now former chief of Afghani intelligence, said that Karzai had lost faith in America's and NATO's ability to prevail over the Taliban. Dutch troops are withdrawing this summer and others will follow. New British PM David Cameron has said that British troops won't remain there a day longer than necessary. That's politically necessary, not militarily.

Obama plans a major review of the Afghanistan effort in December. That, unofficially, is Petraeus's deadline to show what McChrystal once called "irreversible momentum" toward success in Afghanistan. But the only irreversible thing in war is time. And time is very short for Gen. Petraeus.

It's entirely likely that six months from now President Obama will declare that the Taliban's momentum has been broken, and that the abilities to resist terrorism of the Afghan and Pakistani governments have been strengthened. On that basis, he may declare that the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan can be accelerated.

The only question remaining then will be whether David Petraeus will have the strength of character to resign rather than become a party to such a lie. I've met Petraeus many times. I believe he's a better man than that.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.