On Tuesday in Washington, two of the most important appointments President Obama has made were put up for debate in the US Senate. Ordinarily, both a nominee to the Supreme Court and a general selected to run a major war would have faced critical questioning, but this time the response to both could not have differed more starkly.
Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court nominee, was grilled by senators in the usual fashion, while General David Petraeus, Obama's nominee to replace the fired general, Stanley McChrystal, in Afghanistan, was treated with reverence in a hearing that was almost a formality.
The reason stems from a sense of desperation about Afghanistan felt among the senators and Americans at large. They are seeking a savior to turn the tide.
In his hearing, Petraeus reiterated President Obama's insistence that US policy in Afghanistan will remain unchanged. But it is not simply the policy that is important, but the way it is implemented. McChrystal put a personal stamp on US policy that is extremely significant. His long-term approach was not only yielding results, but it also carried implications far beyond the "Af-Pak" theatre.
Much of the debate over McChrystal has focused on the merits of the counterinsurgency doctrine he was implementing, known as COIN, which focused on protecting civilians. A chorus of voices, from pundits to soldiers, is demanding this doctrine be reevaluated or even overturned, arguing it forces troops to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. Petraeus stated in his hearing that reviewing these rules will be "one of my highest priorities" upon assuming command, which indicates a change is probable. McChrystal's idea of awarding medals for "courageous restraint" may be finished.
Although flexibility based on realities on the ground is essential in any strategy, a major alteration along these lines would be a mistake. Despite the critics -- many of whom have been painting doomsday scenarios -- and the setbacks in offensives like Marja, McChrystal was having success in Afghanistan. But it is the not the kind of success that is possible to see in a few months on television, or even by the July 2011 deadline for withdrawing US troops.
McChrystal was succeeding by playing not by the traditional rules of the US military, but the rules of Afghanistan, and specifically the ethnic Pashtun tribesmen who populate the country's south. He built personal relationships with the people he needed to, from Hamid Karzai to a plethora of tribal elders and religious leaders. These relationships, based on building trust, take commitment, patience, and time.
It is a testament to McChrystal's character and adaptability that a man the Sunday Times once described as "a ruthless US special forces hunter-killer" for his role heading American black ops could go on to become the most respected US military commander among ordinary Afghans.
To win over the people, McChrystal knew he had to convince Afghans he was working for them, by no means a simple task considering the contentious history of the last nine years. He did this by being humble and asking them what the US and the Afghan government could do to improve their lives. In long jirga meetings with elders, McChrystal listened far more than he spoke.
Using this method, McChrystal rightly believed he could wean Pashtun tribesmen from the Taliban, who promote a form of Islam that is historically alien to the area. At the same time, he indicated that there would be no solution in Afghanistan without the involvement of the Taliban and said he would be willing to discuss peace with all Afghans who "focus on the future, and not the past".
McChrystal's strategy in Afghanistan also had major implications for US relations with the world's 1.4 billion Muslims. McChrystal's message was simple: We respect you. We honor you. We are here to protect you. You have a great religion and a great culture, and we will help you preserve it and secure a future for your children.
As someone who has done extensive fieldwork across the Muslim world in countries, including Pakistan, as well as among Muslims in America, I can attest that this is an approach that resonates with Muslims everywhere.
McChrystal's sensitivities also led him to recognize how damaging the anti-Islam poison spewed by the American media is to the war effort and to perceptions of the US. He even banned his soldiers from watching Fox News, which is not a surprising decision from a practical perspective. If Bill O'Reilly -- who is tame compared to other voices on the network - is telling troops that the Qur'an is the equivalent of Mein Kampf, for example, and McChrystal is instructing them to respect Islam and the people who practice it, even to the point of danger, who is right? Which position is more likely to win friends for America, and thus the war?
President Obama, who has seen his poll numbers plummet around the Muslim world since outlining high ideals in his Cairo speech, should heed McChrystal's diplomatic method, which has had tangible success in winning "hearts and minds." McChrystal's strategy is also the only one that can stabilize other tribal societies where America is mired, including Somalia and Yemen.
Despite the solid choice of Petraeus, the US will suffer a setback in Afghanistan and in the larger Muslim world if the lessons of McChrystal's strategy are lost along with his job. To avoid this, Obama, Petraeus, and the senators who sailed the general through his hearing, must gain a full understanding of what McChrystal was able to accomplish and its possibilities for the future.
This article originally appeared in the Guardian