(Photo: Pete Souza / White House)
Has it occurred to President Barack Obama that Gen. Stanley McChrystal might actually have wanted to be fired - and, thus, rescued from the current march of folly in Afghanistan, a mess much of his own making?
McChrystal leaves behind a long trail of broken promises and unfulfilled expectations. For example, there is no real security, at least during the night, in the area of Marja, which McChrystal devoted enormous resources to pacify this spring. Remember his boast that he would then bring to Marja a "government-in-a-box" and, thereby, offer an object lesson regarding what was in store for those pesky Taliban in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city?
It is now clear that there will be no offensive against Kandahar anytime soon. For the 500,000 people in Kandahar, this is surely a good thing, but it is a huge embarrassment for McChrystal and his former boss, now his successor, the never nonplussed Gen. David Petraeus.
When McChrystal and his undisciplined senior aides let a Rolling Stone reporter know what they really thought of the "intimidated" Obama and most of his national security team, Obama and his advisers took the bait.
They let McChrystal fold his tent in the night and steal silently away from the disaster he leaves behind. White House advisers then brainstormed the idea of replacing McChrystal in Kabul with the straight-arrow Petraeus who is known for running a tight command. Done!
Master Political Stroke?
Since the announcement Wednesday, the Stanley-out/David-in move has been hailed by Official Washington as a political masterstroke. We shall see. There is, to be sure, some short-term cosmetic cleverness. In my view, however, future pitfalls and pratfalls are likely to far outweigh any political points Obama might score in the near term.
The conventional wisdom holds that Petraeus is the military genius who can still prevail in Afghanistan. But by now, even the densest of Obama's advisers know there will be no prevailing. They see a silver lining, though, in the fact that the choice of Petraeus as successor to McChrystal dumps into Petraeus' lap a mess that he also helped create, along with McChrystal and Obama (not to mention, Bush, Cheney, et al).
Petraeus is given a mission that virtually everyone but Sens. John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham realizes is an impossible assignment. But it gets Petraeus out of the country and - the Obama folks hope - out of contention for the 2012 Republican nomination. In the view of the White House, Petraeus is now in direct charge of the mess in Afghanistan and will find it difficult to pin primary responsibility on Obama. This seems to me largely wishful thinking.
It is far too soon to count Petraeus out. He is politically astute, has powerful friends in Washington and, in testifying to Congress, he has collapsed only once, as far as we know. I believe Petraeus commands wider respect than Obama does - and surely more credibility and respect than the president's national security adviser James Jones, branded a "clown" by one of McChrystal's aides.
The McChrystal circle has had it in for Jones because he pushed back against assertions by McChrystal and others last fall that the United States needed a major infusion of troops in Afghanistan. Dialing back fears stoked by McChrystal (and seriously undercutting the rationale for escalation), Jones chose to tell the press this on October 4:
"I don't foresee the return of the Taliban. Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling ... The al-Qaeda presence is very diminished. The maximum estimate is less than 100 operating in the country, no bases, no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies."
Does it sound to you as if Jones may have been hinting that the US need not send 30,000 more troops to face less than 100 al-Qaeda and the Taliban, whose numbers remain one of the deepest mysteries of the conflict? I am not suggesting that estimates on the strength of Taliban forces are being deliberately hidden from us, although this may be so. What I am suggesting is actually worse: I believe it more likely that no intelligence unit has yet been assigned the task of toting up the numbers. This would not be the first time; a considered look at the Viet Cong order of battle was put off until well into the Vietnam conflict.
Too Clever by Half?
The likely results of the White House shuffle of generals are, in fact, dangerous. The change makes the prospects dimmer for Obama executing a rapid-or even a measured-withdrawal from Afghanistan beginning in July 2011, as some in his administration had hoped. And the president may not yet realize how scandalized his political base has been at his penchant for Bush-like policies, rather than change anyone can still believe in.
Worse still for Obama, in replacing McChrystal with the popular Petraeus, who outnumbers Obama about 100 to zero in merit-badges-on-left-breast, he has given the sainted general the option of eventually calling for more and more troops and firepower lest we "lose" in Vietnamistan - sorry, I mean Afghanistan.
But where would the additional troops come from, and what would they be able to do that is not already being done?
For those old enough to remember a similar stage in the "counterinsurgency" operation in Vietnam, the ramrod image of Petraeus evokes shivers. He resembles much too closely the American commander in Vietnam, the late Gen. William Westmoreland, an equally handsome gent decked out with all manner of ribbons and medals with which to dazzle Congress in a way that President Lyndon Johnson could not.
A lawsuit after the Vietnam War proved that Westmoreland deliberately misled Congress by insisting that there were only half as many Vietnamese Communists under arms as his intelligence analysts knew there were. His hallmark was an insatiable need for more and more troops. Westmoreland's periodic appeals for further escalation built US forces up to 536,000 - as he ploddingly pursued the light at the end of the tunnel.
Finally, in March 1968, President Johnson convened a group of more sober and honest advisers, who told him Vietnam was a fool's errand. Johnson finally said "no" to Westmoreland's request for a 206,000-troop escalation, but it was too late. Johnson wound up forfeiting the presidency as well as the war, opening the door to Richard Nixon and all that followed.
In his multiple mea culpas (that came far too late), Johnson's Defense Secretary Robert McNamara bemoaned the fact that as many as three million Vietnamese were killed, as well as over 58,000 American troops. But during his tenure as secretary of defense, McNamara acted as though he were tone deaf. And his current successor, Robert Gates, seems equally hard of hearing, though he is old enough to remember the hit song of the time, "When will they ever learn?"
Rock and Hard Place
Obama's main dilemma will be how to say "no" when, as seems inevitable, Westmoreland - sorry, Petraeus - makes requests for more "surges" of troops into Afghanistan.
The dynamic of the occupation and feckless forays such as those against Marja suggest the following scenario: Late this year or early next, Petraeus is likely to warn Obama that, if the general does not get the additional forces he needs, he will go the way of McChrystal and invite removal. Petraeus would slide in a subtle but clear intimation that he might challenge Obama for president in 2012.
In that case, Secretary of State Clinton is likely to insist on giving Petraeus whatever he says he needs. Gates would bow to the prevailing winds, and Obama's political advisers would probably advocate sending more troops from wherever they can be scrounged up.
Casualties would rise exponentially; there would never be enough troops; most of those NATO allies that have not already withdrawn their troops would do so. The remaining "coalition forces" would not "prevail" (whatever that means).
Such escalation would not be likely to help, and, by the end of 2011, the Teflon, ribbon-bedecked Petraeus might well quit anyway and join McChrystal in blaming the carnage on the "clowns" around President Obama. We might well end up with either a President Petraeus or another President Clinton in the person of Obama's hawkish Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton is the only official who is praised by McChrystal's wild-boy crew, because she favored giving the general whatever troops he wanted. A Chrystal aide is quoted as saying, "She said, 'If Stan wants it, give him what he needs.'" For Petraeus, it is a safe bet she would say the same thing.
Is it possible that Obama can be blissfully unaware of the dangerous political kill zone into which he has maneuvered his presidency (not to mention the kinetic kill zone into which he has sent US troops)?
The tragedy is that this is totally unnecessary. If President Obama could get beyond ill-conceived, short-term, political considerations, he already has available some well-reasoned guidance as to how to extricate the United States from the Afghanistan morass.
He got solid advice last fall from retired Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, his ambassador in Kabul, who knows more about Afghanistan than Petraeus, McChrystal, Gates, Clinton and special envoy Richard Holbrooke do, put together.
Eikenberry served three years in Afghanistan over the course of two separate tours of duty. During 2002-2003 he was responsible for rebuilding Afghan security forces. He then served 18 months (2005-2007) as commander of all US forces stationed in the country.
Eikenberry's knowledge and experience show through clearly in two highly sensitive cables Eikenberry sent to Washington on November 6 and 9, 2009. Oddly, The New York Times' editorialists suggested yesterday that Obama should include Eikenberry in a "wider housecleaning" of the administration's Afghan brain trust. Never mind that Eikenberry got it exactly right, as the events of the past eight months clearly show.
The news columns of the Times, however, do deserve credit for publishing a story on Eikenberry's views as soon as it acquired the substance of two cables he sent from Kabul to Washington on November 6 and 9. The columns were printed well before Obama made his decision to escalate in Afghanistan. Better still, in January the Times posted on line the actual TOP SECRET NODIS cables (full text).
Sources of such material do not take lightly the risk of being discovered and punished. In my view, however, there are times when they are not only justified, but required in conscience to make sensitive material available. To the credit of the Times' source (reportedly a US official), he/she was willing to take this patriotic action, to ensure that those interested could learn what Eikenberry really thought, especially his doubts about the effectiveness of a military escalation. (See "Obama Ignores Key Afghan Warning.")
Apparently, the Times' source saw what ethicists call a "supervening" value in making this unauthorized disclosure - value that transcends and trumps the promise, customarily made as a condition of employment, not to divulge classified information.
Promises are important; one does not break them capriciously. But unauthorized disclosures can be acts of courage - the kind of behavior that can prevent wars, and even stop ones already under way.
Despite the fact that Eikenberry's views were in the public domain last fall, President Obama apparently put his finger to the prevailing political winds of Washington and chose to go with McChrystal's counterinsurgency "surge" rather than the advice from Eikenberry and from Vice President Joe Biden, who also opposed the escalation. Obama seems to assign the highest priority to being able to thwart any campaign - however disingenuous - to paint him soft on terrorism.
And, so, the president sided with McChrystal, Petraeus, Clinton and Gates, agreeing to triple the US troop levels to about 100,000. In the months that have passed, the levels of American casualties have jumped, but the prospects for victory (or some modicum of success) remain stuck in a deepening quagmire - in the deep muddy, so to speak.
Now, with some indiscreet comments to Rolling Stone magazine, McChrystal has managed to get plucked from the swamp, as if a "deus ex machina" derrick suddenly appeared from behind the scenes of a Greek tragedy and magically hoisted the embattled hero out of an impossible situation.
Obama now has turned to what might be called "Petraeus ex machina" as a rescue operation for the benighted US strategy in Afghanistan. But this dusted-off, spit-and-polish human device is not likely to be able to lift the larger military campaign out of grave danger. Instead, many of the US troops committed to this dubious plan - not to mention thousands of Afghans - seem doomed to perish in what has become a real-life tragedy.