President Barack Obama has fired top Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal for mocking senior administration officials in Rolling Stone magazine, and replaced him with Gen. David Petraeus, who previously led operations in Iraq. "It is the right decision for our national security," Obama said.
Who can blame the president? The remarks were an obvious affront, not just to the Commander-in-chief, but also to America's very system of civilian government. The military, of all entities, understands the perils of insubordination. Its respect for the chain of command is the only thing standing in the way of a military dictatorship.
But while Washington soaks up the outcome of this clash-of-the-titans style showdown, the more important story could go virtually unnoticed: that even McChrystal, the Afghanistan war's point man and chief proponent, has been harboring doubts about the feasibility of the mission.
"It's not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win," said Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, McChrystal's chief of operations, of the Afghanistan strategy. "This is going to end in an argument." Also in the Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings, McChrystal derided NATO allies, revealing his frustrations with the coalition. "I'd rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to [a] dinner [with them]," he said.
Upon ousting McChrystal, Obama reiterated his commitment to the mission Wednesday, following a recent string of events that has cast a dark cloud over prospects for success.
This month Afghanistan became America's longest-ever war, and the US death toll crossed 1,000. June is also set to be the deadliest month for NATO forces since the war began in 2001. Last year was its deadliest, and this year is on pace to set a new record. President Hamid Karzai's top advisers say he's lost faith in the coalition and even his own government to turn things around. His perceived illegitimacy after last autumn's disputed election diminishes his clout.
Far from quelling the bleeding, the situation has further deteriorated since the Obama administration's troop surge this year. The recent offensive to oust the Taliban from the stronghold of Marjah was a disaster - McChrystal himself called it a "bleeding ulcer." Critical operations in Kandahar have been postponed. And in case all this isn't bad enough, Afghan private contractors appear to be using US taxpayer money to bribe Taliban militants to fuel the violence, the New York Times reports.
Meanwhile, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates backs away from Obama's pledge to begin winding down next July, Al-Qaeda has moved its operations to Pakistan and parts of Africa, and Afghan Taliban insurgents are co-opting western troop presence as propaganda to recruit and intimidate locals.
It's easy to understand the perils of withdrawal. If the Taliban were to regain control it would be a tragedy for Afghans, especially women. But at some point, somebody needs to ask whether the United States and NATO are capable of turning things around in a meaningful way. Nine years in, this remains a mystery. The Karzai government is losing control and the Afghan people remain defiant to a strong central government. You can't have NATO cops on the street overseeing this forever. Sooner or later they'll have to leave and Afghanistan will have to face the inevitable.
The situation is nothing like Iraq, where the troop surge in 2007 helped quell violence long enough to allow the Iraqi government to develop some form of a security apparatus. Afghanistan is less advanced, more splintered into tribes and villages, more resistant to foreign soldiers who claim to want what's best for them. There's a reason historians have termed Afghanistan the "graveyard of empires."
It's telling that leaders of all major parties -- the Karzai government, Britain, and now the United States -- see dimming prospects for the mission. How eerily fitting when at the end of Wednesday's speech in the Rose Garden, a reporter yelled out: "Mr President, can this war be won?"
Obama didn't answer.