Experts: Obama's Decision About McChrystal's Job Doesn't Change Flawed Afghan Strategy

Tuesday, 22 Jun 2010 07:08 PM

By David A. Patten

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Afghanistan war commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal may have been relieved of his duties during a meeting with President Obama today, according to analysts reading between the lines after the meeting.

After meeting with the president, McChrystal left the White House at about 10:25 a.m. This raised speculation he would not attend the monthly War Council meeting at 11:45 a.m.

MyChrystal was seen outside the White House after his private session with Obama. He shook hands with several aides before getting into an SUV and leaving.

The absence of the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan from the 11:45 a.m. meeting almost certainly would indicate that he has been relieved of his duties, analysts say.

The White House has announced that Obama will make a statement to the media following the War Council's meeting. Whether he will disclose McChrystal's fate at that time remains unknown.

The Obama-McChrystal summit occurred after an angry president summoned the general back to Washington to face the same officials he and his staff blasted in an upcoming magazine article.

Obama had said he wanted to speak directly to McChrystal before deciding whether to fire him for mocking and disparaging his leadership.

"I think it's clear that the article in which he and his team appeared showed a poor — showed poor judgment," the president said in his first comments on the matter, surrounded by members of his Cabinet at the close of their meeting. "But I also want to make sure that I talk to him directly before I make any final decisions."

As press aides quickly ushered out the media, Obama stopped them again to emphasize his concern about the troops.

"I want everybody to keep in mind what our central focus is — and that is success in making sure that al-Qaida and its affiliates cannot attack the United States and its allies," Obama said.

"And we've got young men and women there who are making enormous sacrifices, families back home who are making enormous sacrifices," he said.

If President Obama decides that McChrystal must go, he will be firing the general he appointed and empowered to design the counterinsurgency strategy the nation is counting on to win the war in Afghanistan.

Foreign policy expert James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation, who spent 25 years in the Army and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, tells Newsmax that McChrystal's remarks were "just wrong." But he doesn't think he should be forced to resign.

"I think the biggest problem with the war effort was the two mistakes that Obama made at the outset. They wanted more troops in the surge, and he didn't give them to them. And they did not want a timeline, and he gave them one," Carafano says.

John Pike, the national security expert and director of globalsecurity.org, tells Newsmax it may be time to shake up the entire team of officials in charge of U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

"If the question is should [McChrystal] be replaced, well, I might start with him but I wouldn't stop with him," Pike says. "The whole country team, it seems to me, is broken, or it seems to be. But the country team is dysfunctional because the strategy is dysfunctional. And the strategy dysfunction is so massive, that I don't think there's any amount of personnel change that will change things substantially."

Any counterinsurgency strategy that doesn't account for Afghanistan's thriving heroin and poppy business is doomed to fail, Pike says.

Whatever the outcome of meeting with McChrystal on Wednesday, the Rolling Stone story clearly is focusing attention on a place where the administration doesn't want it: The war's slow progress and its rising casualties. America is fighting to avoid becoming the latest casualty of the country often called "the graveyard of empires."

McChrystal hastily apologized for his remarks Tuesday, most of which came from members of his staff. Among the article's revelations:
  • One McChrystal aide called national security adviser James Jones a “clown.”
  • U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, a three-star general, is said to shoot off memos to cover “his flank for the history books.”
  • McChrystal felt "betrayed" by a leaked Eikenberry memo that said Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai was not an "adequate strategic partner" for the United States.
  • Obama Middle East envoy Richard Holbrooke was described as "a wounded animal." Said one McChrystal aide: "Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous."
But perhaps the most devastating critique involves Obama himself.

Rolling Stone reports that McChrystal and a dozen other senior military officials first met Obama at the Pentagon shortly after he assumed office.

The article cites a source saying McChrystal thought Obama appeared "uncomfortable and intimidated" by the room full of military brass. McChrystal reportedly was "disappointed" with his meeting with Obama, who was uninformed and not engaged, according to McChrystal's aides.

“I extend my sincerest apology for this profile,” McChrystal said in his apology. “It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and it should have never happened.”

One head already has rolled because of the article. Duncan Boothby, the special assistant to McChrystal who helped organize the Rolling Stone profile, which was titled “The Runaway General,” was told to resign Tuesday. He did so.

The bipartisan consensus is that the article was a huge blunder for McChrystal, who may not survive the mistake.

But beyond McChrystal, the larger concern is how the gaffe might impact U.S. troop morale and the conduct of the war.

A Taliban spokesman reacted quickly to the McChrystal furor, saying the recall indicates a division within the U.S. command structure.

The situation also presents President Obama with a major dilemma. If he doesn't fire McChrystal, he could be viewed as weak. But if he does fire him, it could greatly complicate the timetable Obama set for a drawdown of forces in Afghanistan to begin in July 2011.

"The problem is the damage is already done," Bernard I. Finel, a senior fellow and director of research for the nonpartisan American Security Project, tells Newsmax. "Some people have suggested that firing McChrystal now, or accepting his resignation, would bolster the insurgency more boldly. But keeping a general in place who is openly contemptuous can't help either. So I think this is sort of a lose-lose situation."

NBC Military analyst Barry McCaffrey on Tuesday called McChrystal "a superb warrior" but said he probably will have to resign because he is now publicly at odds with Eikenberry.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a statement saying that McChrystal "made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment in this case."

McChrystal's standing may also be damaged by ongoing instability in the key Afghan town of Marja.

Marja was heralded as a test case for the administration's counterinsurgency strategy, which involves carefully prescribing what military actions are undertaken in order to avoid civilian casualties, while also building up the civil infrastructure in order to win the loyalty of the local population.

About 20,000 soldiers spent weeks battling the Taliban in Marja. In February, McChrystal remarked: “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in."

Envoy Holbrooke visited Marja Monday to assess how well the new strategy was working. The welcome he received spoke volumes.

Taliban fighters tried to shoot down Holbrooke's V22 Osprey as it landed. That led to a 10-minute gunbattle with insurgents. Then, as Holbrooke was leaving, three suicide bombers blew themselves up in an attack on the base.

In recent testimony before Congress, Gates described the military operation in Marja as a success. But he conceded establishing the governmental infrastructure was “moving slower than we originally anticipated.”

Gates added that “we made very clear at the very outset, many months ago, that this summer would see increased casualties.”

"We've got problems," McCaffrey declared Tuesday. He added that the McChrystal incident "has done political damage to the president of the United States."

On Tuesday afternoon, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina joined independent Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut in weighing in on the McChrystal controversy.

"General McChrystal's comments, as reported in Rolling Stone, are inappropriate and inconsistent with the traditional relationship between commander in chief and the military," the senators said.

They said that they have "the highest respect" for McChrystal but added, "The decision concerning General McChrystal's future is a decision to be made by the president of the United States."

The McChrystal furor is likely to put the spotlight back on Obama's handling of the war, including the strength of the surge and the decision to announce a timetable for withdrawal. And the White House doesn't sound very happy about it.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Tuesday afternoon that McChrystal had made an "enormous mistake in judgment."

Of the president's reaction, Gibbs said: "He was angry — you would know it if you saw it."

Obama promoted McChrystal to his current position in May 2009, when defense secretary Gates ousted then-Afghanistan commander Gen. David McKiernan and replaced him with McChrystal, who had extensive special operations and counterinsurgency experience.

Before long, however, McChrystal was drawn into the administration's extended debate over whether to commit more troops to fight in Afghanistan. It was a move Vice President Joe Biden strongly opposed.

In late October, McChrystal drew the president's wrath when he said Biden's plan to withdrawal most of the troops and fight the war with drones would result in "Chaos-istan."

After the president met privately with McChrystal aboard Air Force One during Obama's failed attempt in Copenhagen to bring the Olympic games to Chicago, the administration reportedly concluded that McChrystal simply lacked a realistic understanding of the media.

According to CBS News, McChrystal sought 50,000 troops for the surge.

President Obama authorized 30,000, while cajoling U.S. allies to contribute more soldiers as well.

At the time he announced the surge, Obama took the controversial step of declaring a July 2011 deadline to begin bringing the troops back home — a decision McChrystal reportedly considered a mistake.

Since then, Obama has been under pressure from his party's left to make troop reductions on a strict timetable. But conservatives have stridently objected that timetables signal American vacillation when it comes to protecting Afghans from Taliban reprisals.

Former Bush administration speechwriter and columnist Marc Thiessen, for example, slammed the president recently for setting "an artificial deadline" for withdrawal. "This decision could prove to be an unmitigated disaster, one which may have doomed the mission in Afghanistan from the start," he wrote.

Similarly, Sen. McCain said a timetable "does not bode well for success in Afghanistan."

“If we sound an uncertain trumpet, not many will follow,” McCain said during recent Senate hearings. “And that’s what’s being sounded now.”

Administration officials have been inconsistent of late regarding whether the July 2011 deadline could be pushed back if the Taliban resistance continues.

Secretary Gates recently told Congress that 10,000 of the 30,000 troops involved in the surge haven't even reached Afghanistan yet.

Gates has maintained that the deadline isn't fixed, as has Gen. David Petraeus, the Pentagon's overall commander of military activities in the Middle East.

But as related in Jonathan Alter's book "The Promise," Vice President Biden has said that "a whole lot" of troops will be leaving Afghanistan by the assigned date.

On ABC's This Week on Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said the July 2011 deadline is firm.

MSNBC host Joe Scarborough remarked Tuesday morning that a Republican president would have fired McChrystal immediately for the remarks. But he said a Democratic president must avoid playing into the narrative that Democrats are anti-war.

“The substance of this will be debated on the campaign trail," Scarborough said. "General McChrystal has just handed the Republican Party a club by which they will hammer Barack Obama and every Democrat over the next three to four months.”

One supporter of sticking by McChrystal's side is Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

A Karzai spokesman said the Afghani president "strongly supports" McChrystal, calling him "the best commander the United States has sent to Afghanistan over the last nine years."

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