As President Barack Obama struggles to keep attention focused on al-Qaeda rather than his showdown with "runaway" General Stanley McChrystal, the core of their feud cannot be lost tomorrow in what should be a media blizzard.
"I think it's clear that the article in which he and his team appeared showed a poor - showed poor judgment," Obama said of Michael Hasting's Rolling Stone article that has triggered an earthquake in Washington.
Spokesman Robert Gibbs echoed, “The magnitude and greatness of the mistake here are profound.”
But the White House and Pentagon fundamentally disagree on troop levels and time-frames in Afghanistan, foremost concerns among many, and changing generals won’t matter if the strategy isn’t altered in the process. Obama is facing a runaway war before a runaway general.
A breakdown in strategy before a break in the chain of command.
Beyond sluggish military progress in Marjah and Kandahar, US counterinsurgency operations continue to lack the essential non-military support from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan’s nebulous allegiance. Karzai and his brother, both said to be closer to McCrystal than Petraeus, have orchestrated a symphony for the current general.
They realize that a shifting strategy could challenge their power and won’t miss a chance to sow division. After all, US officials do it to them all the time.
Meanwhile Pakistan just ignored US envoy Richard Holbrooke’s explicit warning to veto a pipe-line deal with Iran. Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani told reporters that he would reconsider the deal if it violated U.N. sanctions, but that Pakistan is "not bound to follow" unilateral U.S. measures. Good news from Pakistan is rare these days.
And NATO support wanes every day.
Ultimately McChrystal’s poor judgment is due to Obama’s. Not only did he severely underestimate the war’s requirements, he also lied throughout his presidential campaign on the concept of a "good war." Obama did speak occasional truth on Afghanistan - he did say a surge was coming. But he also knew a larger effort was needed, and undersold his position in order to create political space for the first round of 17,000 troops and 4,000 trainers, with the hope that “success” would support another small surge.
What he didn’t realize is how many troops were actually needed or, at 50,000 and counting, how fast they would stack up. Hastings recounts how Obama believed he could “escape” with 21,000 troops, only to be confronted with an initial request of 150,000 troops. 25,000 was considered high risk, 40,000 the medium bar.
Speaking from his own opinion, Hastings claims that Obama woefully underestimated what counterinsurgency entails, and that his lack of knowledge has cost him respect in the military. It’s common knowledge that Obama used Afghanistan to bolster his weak foreign policy credibility. He’s also dressed down his generals to appear strong, surely an unpopular tactic.
The present chaos is already the result of playing politics with war.
Unfortunately that cycle is about to repeat in the looming showdown between Obama and McChrystal. If the general is replaced then his exit should necessitate a review of whether to exit Afghanistan. Otherwise McChrystal’s termination would be more political than strategic, a scapegoating to continue the war under newly avowed allegiance.
Perhaps even an opportunity to sell a “new beginning” that Afghanistan needs more time. A showdown and its fallout has political manipulation smeared all over it.
But given that McChrystal is reportedly preparing to offer his resignation, considering who comes next cannot be avoided. The list of suspects includes General James Mattis, Joint Forces Command chief, Lt. Gen. John Allen, No. 2 at CENTCOM, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, McChrystal's No. 2 in Afghanistan, and General Martin Dempsey, commander of the Army Training and Doctrine Command.
Yet only one man seems truly suited for the job, the ace of these kings: David Petraeus.
He fits for too many reasons. First, whether Obama decides to change course and withdraw or not, he’ll need a larger than life personality to contain the Pentagon’s leaks. Obama can't trade down. The schism between the White House and Pentagon demands a strong man like Petraeus, not another deputy.
Afghanistan is also a highly public and politicized war, and Petraeus is America’s most publicly skilled general, whether on TV or in a Congressional hearing.
A second reason stems from McChrystal’s saving grace: counterinsurgency. McChrystal has sold himself as a COIN student and the media has obliged to paint that portrait, but he’s also a relatively a young COINdanista, as Petraeus and his students call themselves. Having commanded Joint Special Operations Command for five years, his mind likely leans towards counter-terrorism, not pure COIN.
McChrystal picked up his COIN speak from Professor Petraeus, America's leading COIN advocate. Author of the US Army COIN manual and shadow directer of Center For a New American Security, which prides itself on COIN, no one is more theoretically suited for Afghanistan.
Petraeus also led the Iraq surge, which could count for something inside the White House despite Iraq’s undecided outcome.
The obvious downside is that Petraeus won’t resolve Afghanistan's countless ills or the underlying discord between the White House and Pentagon. He holds similar views as McChrystal - most Pentagon commanders feel like they don't have enough troops, time, or the correct strategy on a geopolitical scale. Petraeus felt that 30,000 troops were too few, July 2011 too early. Obama even forced him to speed up his surge, which Petraeus initially voiced skepticism of.
None of these doubts have changed.
If Obama does fire McChrystal, the best option is to find a general that believes in a quicker draw-down, not one determined to eliminate July 2011 as a withdrawal date. Petraeus has already pushed back the deadline so that’s where his path leads. Though Obama doesn't want to leave Afghanistan in chaos and have it bite him, he still wants a quick exit before the 2012 election cycle. The Pentagon is devoid of commanders who feel the same.
US strategy is in disarray and until that gap is bridged - until Obama reanalyzes his own judgment - there won’t be much difference whether McChrystal is left in the war or pulled. Ignoring such blaring signs of disaster would be suicidal. And it bears repeating that President Obama would be wise to address the nation as soon as possible.