KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — The furor over disrespectful remarks directed at the Obama administration by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staff has already earned the man in charge of turning around the Afghanistan war a new moniker: The runaway general.
Today, the fallout from comments made to Rolling Stone magazine could make him the gone-away general and, some say, jeopardize a counterinsurgency strategy he helped craft. McChrystal flew back to Washington overnight for an emergency meeting today with President Barack Obama, who yesterday spoke of the general’s “poor judgment.”
Critics of the general argue that McChrystal is trying to box in Obama and challenge civilian supremacy over the US military. But others say his departure at a highly sensitive juncture could deal a severe blow to the war effort.
“McChrystal has been one of the most successful NATO commanders in the country in the past nine years and now he’s put in a strategy that is just being implemented,” says Waliullah Rahmani at the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. “If there are any changes in the command, I think it will tend to affect and slow the strategy. It would be very, very negative.”
Whatever Obama decides, the row has put a spotlight on a debate that’s been bubbling along since before Obama committed the United States to a new counterinsurgency strategy here last December: How much time is enough time? And does hinting at limits to US patience encourage a better effort from Afghan politicians like President Hamid Karzai or simply send a message to the Taliban that they can run out the clock?
Eye on July 2011
In Kabul, Afghan officials and some average citizens are worried that the timer on the US commitment to Afghanistan is set to run down in July of next year.
That’s when Obama says that he hopes to start withdrawing US troops and give more political and military responsibility to Mr. Karzai’s government.
Officials in Kabul say the article simply lays bare what’s been an open secret for a long time: a fairly poisonous atmosphere between McChrystal’s team and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a former general here who argued against the surge, that’s making it difficult for the State Department and the military to work well together.
“There are tensions between the State Department and the military in Kabul as well, that’s clear,” says Mr. Rahmani. “McChrystal didn’t think that he could, in a year and a half, stabilize the ground – that this was an exit strategy.”
NATO had about 75,000 troops here before the surge. When the surge peaks, there should be about 150,000. The plan as drawn up, Rahmani says, was to start drawing down to about 75,000 again in the middle of next summer, if all goes well.
In the Rolling Stone article, McChrystal manages to be insulting toward the French, simultaneously crude and dismissive of the opinions of Vice President Joe Biden, and appears to have encouraged a general locker-room atmosphere around his staff.
Of Mr. Eikenberry, who in a leaked memo last year argued against the troop surge that McChrystal was pushing hard for, he said: “Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’ ”
Awareness time is not on his side
Military analysts say McChrystal’s testiness shows he knows that time is not on his side. Allies in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is the umbrella for the war effort, have been growing restless.
Earlier this week, Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British special envoy to Afghanistan and a former ambassador here, stepped down from his job. He had questioned the wisdom of the troop surge and counterinsurgency here, worried it would only lead to a bloody and expensive quagmire, and favored negotiations with the Taliban.
A much-vaunted offensive around the southern town of Marjah last month, which was billed as the first major test of a counterinsurgency strategy that involves clearing out insurgents from an area and then quickly building a functional government to deliver services to local residents, has not delivered.
Ahead of the operation, McChrystal predicted success and said he had a “government in a box” ready to be put in place. More recently, he said the area is like a “bleeding ulcer.” An offensive originally scheduled for this month in Kandahar, the city where the Taliban first came to prominence, is currently delayed.
Obama has promised a strategy review in December, and if tangible progress isn’t made before then, the critics of the current strategy – who say it’s unlikely to yield results since it relies on good governance from a government that is among the most corrupt in the world – could get more listeners.
“It is far from clear that ISAF and the US have as yet won any tactical victories they can exploit in ways that bring lasting stability,” Anthony Cordesman, a former top Pentagon official and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote in a report last week. “One thing is clear: The war will be lost if 2011 is treated as a deadline and/or if the … Afghan people, the Pakistani government and people and our allies perceive it as a deadline.”
To be sure, the administration is still signaling it will stay the course beyond next summer. Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, said that the US isn’t going to abandon Afghanistan. Mr. Holbrooke was a target for McChrystal’s ire in the story (aides to McChrystal said their boss believes Holbrooke fears he is about to lose his job and so is “dangerous … like a wounded animal”) .
“I think it’s very clear that we’re not leaving in July of next year, we are starting combat troop withdrawals,” he told reporters in Germany last week. “If the West were to turn away from Afghanistan again, as we did in 1989, that would be a disaster. But the message doesn’t always get out.”
Afghan government supports McChrystal
The brash McChrystal has been at odds with administration officials before. Last year Obama called him in for a dressing-down after he called Vice President Biden’s proposal to avoid a massive surge and nation-building in favor of concentrating on Al Qaeda “short-sighted,” something that was widely seen at an attempt to pressure Obama to choose the surge.
But he’s also built a strong relationship with Karzai. Diplomats here say McChrystal is the US official that Karzai – whose relations with other US leaders turned sour over last year’s fraud-marred presidential election – trusts most. Afghan officials have urged that McChrystal keep his job, saying that firing him would stymie progress and undermine a security operation under way in Taliban strongholds in the country’s south.