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Obama's Afghanistan Policy: What a New General Can't Fix

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President Obama's dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal as the senior U.S. and coalition military commander in Afghanistan -- prompted by critical remarks about senior civilian officials and the Obama administration's decision-making process from McChrystal and members of his staff, as reported in Rolling Stone magazine -- should focus attention on the incoherence of the Obama administration's strategy for prosecuting what is now the longest war in American history (yes, longer than Vietnam).

The Rolling Stone article is not the first time that McChrystal's critical views of his civilian superiors have made their way into the public eye. Last fall, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, McChrystal described the "counterterrorism" strategy for Afghanistan being advocated by Vice President Biden as a superior alternative to the general's preferred "counter-insurgency" strategy as a "shortsighted" approach that would lead Afghanistan into a state of "Chaos-istan."

One of the more striking aspects of the current episode is that no one is vigorously disputing the essence of the assessments advanced by McChrystal and his associates; most commentary argues only that sharing the assessments with a journalist was inappropriate. Among other items in the Rolling Stone account, America's senior military leadership in Afghanistan...

-Characterized national security adviser James Jones as a "clown" and an "inept bureaucratic infighter" who is "stuck in 1985." (It is hard to find many people in Washington who think that Jones is not ineffective as Obama's national security adviser.)

-Depicted special envoy Richard Holbrooke as a "wounded animal" obsessed with "rumors that he's going to be fired, so that makes him dangerous. He's a brilliant guy, but he just comes in, pulls on a lever, whatever he can grasp onto. But this is [counter-insurgency], and you can't just have someone yanking on shit." (Holbrooke seems to have been determined to make an American counter-insurgency campaign since his service as a young Foreign Service Officer in Vietnam in the 1960s.)

-Described Ambassador Karl Eikenberry's cable leaked to the New York Times in January that sharply questioned McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategy as "one that covers his flank for the history books -- now, if we fail, they can say, 'I told you so.'"

-Criticized high-profile politicians like Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) and Senator John McCain (R-Arizona and the GOP's 2008 presidential nominee), who "turn up, have a meeting with Karzai, criticize him at the airport press conference, then get back for the Sunday talk shows. Frankly, it's not very helpful."

Furthermore, while we are not fans of counter-insurgency, it seems that McChrystal agrees with one of our long-standing critiques of Obama's policies: The people he has appointed to key national security and foreign policy positions are incapable of or unwilling to put together an effective strategy to broker a political settlement for Afghanistan -- a settlement that would include the key internal Afghan players, such as President Hamid Karzai and leaders of the Taliban, as well as the dominant external powers, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia.

But the problems with Obama's advisers do not stop with their ineffectiveness. While refusing (or simply being unable) to work together to develop and implement a strategy to stabilize Afghanistan, many of these same advisers are working overtime to stoke conflict between the United States and one of Afghanistan's principal external players -- Iran. They are also working to exacerbate tensions between two of Afghanistan's most important external players -- Iran and Saudi Arabia -- which, in years to come, could add an Iranian-Saudi proxy war in Afghanistan on top of the country's already chaotic landscape. Likewise, they are trying to prevent Iran and Pakistan -- which have had an historically antagonistic relationship -- from cooperating on an important gas pipeline.

It remains to be seen whether McChrystal's designated replacement, General David Petraeus, will be able to inject a more genuinely strategic approach into the Obama administration's Afghan policy. In his assignments in Iraq, General Petraeus exhibited occasional understanding of what needed to be done politically with key internal and external actors. During his first assignment in Iraq, as commander of the 101st Airborne Division with responsibility for the area around Mosul, Petraeus broke with the preferences of neoconservative civilians in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Donald Rumsfeld, at the time) to engage with Syrian officials in order to get an electrical power supply established for his area of responsibility. During his later assignment as senior commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, Petraeus had the foresight to engage Sunni groups which the United States had previously written off as irredeemable supporters of Al-Qa'ida in Iraq. If -- and this is a big if -- these relatively small points about his service in Iraq indicate how Petraeus will approach his new assignment in Afghanistan, then the new commander might be able to see the importance of engaging with all of the critical players inside Afghanistan (including senior members of the Taliban), as well as with key external players like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

But even more important than McChrystal's highlighting of the weaknesses of Obama's national security and foreign policy team is his powerful implication that the president himself is not capable of articulating a clear strategy, sticking with it, and putting together a team capable of implementing it. Whether he meant to or not, General McChrystal has unveiled a stark failure of presidential leadership that puts U.S. interests in an important part of the world in serious jeopardy. And that's something that not even a new general can fix.

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