President Obama was fully justified in dismissing Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The firing offense did not rise to the level of insubordination — this was no MacArthur undermining the commander-in-chief’s war strategy — but it was a serious enough show of disrespect for the president and for the entire civilian leadership to justify relief from his post.
Moreover, choosing David Petraeus to succeed McChrystal was the best possible means of minimizing the disruption that comes with every change of command, and of reaffirming that the current strategy will be pursued with equal vigor.
The administration is hoping that Petraeus can replicate his Iraq miracle. This includes Democrats who, when Petraeus testified to Congress about the Iraq surge in September 2007, accused him of requiring “the willing suspension of disbelief” (Sen. Hillary Clinton) or refused to vote for the Senate resolution condemning that shameful “General Betray Us” newspaper ad (Sen. Barack Obama).
However, two major factors distinguish the Afghan from the Iraqi surge. First is the alarming weakness and ineptness — to say nothing of the corruption — of the Afghan central government. One of the reasons the U.S. offensive in Marja has faltered is that there is no Afghan “government in a box” to provide authority for territory that the U.S. military clears.
In Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki, after many mixed signals, eventually showed that he could act as a competent national leader rather than a sectarian one when he attacked Moqtada al-Sadr’s stronghold in Basra, faced down the Mahdi Army in the other major cities in the south, and took the fight into Sadr City in Baghdad itself. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, President Karzai makes public overtures to the Taliban, signaling that he is already hedging his bets.
But beyond indecision in Kabul, there is indecision in Washington. When the president of the United States announces the Afghan surge and, in the very next sentence, announces the date on which a U.S. withdrawal will begin, the Afghans — from president to peasant — take note.