General McChrystal had to go. Whatever his virtues as a strategist and commander, the Rolling Stone interview fatally compromised his ability to represent the United States in dealing with allies and to act within the circle of people who must make decisions in Afghanistan. If he had been a subordinate commander, it might have been different, but he wasn’t. It was as simple as that.
Yet there are, as always, broader issues. The whole episode shows a lack of coherence and even civility within the administration. It is certainly not uncommon for factions to form around a president as strong-minded people vie for influence over policy. But the extent of the infighting — the vicious and personal nature of it — reflects very badly on President Obama’s leadership. After all, this is supposed to be a team, and the members of a team should know that if they can not be friends, they must at least be responsible adults.
The president has let the situation get out of control, and he now must take effective steps to stop the infighting, not just for the sake of the war in Afghanistan, but to show his whole administration that he will not tolerate the kind of maneuvering that has occurred. Replacing General McChrystal with David Petraeus was a good first step, but more will be needed. General Petraeus is not a miracle worker. He can not be successful unless the president creates greater confidence within his own team about the decisions which the president has himself made.
It’s another test, not of the president’s policy, but of his competence as a leader. Given Mr. Obama’s lack of experience as an executive, and his past performance in crises such as the oil spill, it is reasonable for those of us who support the effort in Afghanistan to worry that he will not be up to the job.
And finally, there is one even broader issue that no one is talking about. Volumes have been written, and appropriately so, about the difficulty of counterinsurgency wars such as the one America is prosecuting in Afghanistan. Some in Washington believe that we should abandon the war — though they don’t explain how to withdraw, how to deal with the fallout from defeat, or what to do if, as is likely, the terrorists reconstitute their safe havens in Afghanistan once the United States leaves. Many others believe that adjustments in tactics, or better communications, or changes in diplomacy, will increase the likelihood of success. But what everyone agrees on is that the war is straining the resources of the military, and that the whole effort would be much easier if America had a bigger Army.
That would permit the president to put more troops into Afghanistan. The first requirement for success in counterinsurgency is security throughout the entire contested area, and that requires well-trained troops whose sustained presence assures civilians that they can cooperate with coalition forces without fear of reprisal.