Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Don't blame McChrystal, blame Obama

When even the Washington Post and Jackson Diehl are admitting the truth you know the White House is in big trouble. "Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal should not lose his job because of the article about him in Rolling Stone magazine. If anyone deserves blame for the latest airing of the administration’s internal feuds over Afghanistan, it is President Obama. For months Obama has tolerated deep divisions between his military and civilian aides over how to implement the counterinsurgency strategy he announced last December. The divide has made it practically impossible to fashion a coherent politico-military plan, led to frequent disputes over tactics and contributed to a sharp deterioration in the administration’s relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The virtue of the Rolling Stone article is that Obama may finally have to confront the trouble. But the dismissal of McChrystal would be the wrong outcome. It could spell disaster for the military campaign he is now overseeing in southern Afghanistan, and it would reward those in the administration who have been trying to undermine him, including through media leaks of their own. Rolling Stone portrays McChrystal as being sharply at odds with Vice President Biden, State Department Afghanistan envoy Richard Holbrooke and U.S. ambassador Karl Ikenberry. Most of its incendiary quotes come not from the general, but his aides -- one of whom resigned Tuesday. McChrystal himself apologized for the article; he was reported to be returning to Washington for a White House meeting on Afghanistan Wednesday. McChrystal’s enemies were quick to portray him as out of line and likely to be scolded, if not fired, by Obama. My colleague Jonathan Capehart said McChrystal should be ready to resign. But the tensions McChrystal disclosed were not news to anyone who has been following the Afghanistan mission in recent months; I first wrote about them more than a month ago. Nor is McChrystal the only participant in the feuding who has gone public with his argument. A scathing memo by Ikenberry describing Karzai as an unreliable partner was leaked to the press last fall. At a White House press briefing during Karzai’s visit to Washington last month, the ambassador pointedly refused to endorse the Afghan leader he must working with. Biden, for his part, gave an interview to Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter in which he said that in July of next year “you are going to see a whole lot of [U.S. troops] moving out.” Yet as Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates tartly pointed out over the weekend, “that absolutely has not been decided.” Instead, Biden was pushing his personal version of the strategy Obama approved, which calls for the beginning of withdrawals next year, with the size and pace to be determined by conditions at that time. The real trouble is that Obama never resolved the dispute within his administration over Afghanistan strategy. With the backing of Gates and the Pentagon’s top generals, McChrystal sought to apply to Afghanistan the counterinsurgency approach that succeeded over the last three years in Iraq, an option requiring the deployment of tens of thousands more troops. Biden opposed sending most of the reinforcements and argued for a “counterterrorism plus” strategy centered on preventing al-Qaeda from establishing another refuge. In the end, Obama adopted what is beginning to look like a bad compromise. He approved most of the additional troops that McChrystal sought, but attached the July, 2011 deadline for beginning withdrawals. Since then both sides have been arguing their cases, in private and in public, to the press and to members of Congress. McChrystal may be at fault for expressing his frustrations to Rolling Stone. He is not at fault for the lack of coherence in the Afghan campaign or the continued feuding over strategy. That is Obama’s responsibility. By Jackson Diehl, Washington Post"

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