Calling it "the right thing for our mission in Afghanistan, for our military, and for our country," President Barack Obama opted to replace Gen. Stanley McChrystal following the publication of a Rolling Stone article in which McChrystal and his inner circle made disparaging remarks about administration officials. The decision was necessary, as Noah Schactman writes, because "[k]eeping General Stanley McChrystal in place would have shattered the chain of command, obliterated the authority Obama had with the military, and undermined any hope of waging a successful counterinsurgency in Afghanistan."
The question now becomes whether McChrystal's departure means a shift in our Afghanistan strategy. As Spencer Ackerman reported earlier, the answer is no.
Conservatives recognized that McChrystal needed to be disciplined but wanted him to stay, largely because they were concerned his departure would mean a shift in strategy. Despite the tendency of the political press to describe military commanders in near-mythological terms, McChrystal is not irreplaceable, not even for those who want to see the current counterinsurgency strategy continue. With Gen. David Petraeus stepping in as his replacement, those on the right concerned with strategic continuity can breathe easy. Obama stressed that "we have a clear goal, we are going to break the Taliban's momentum, we are going to build Afghan capacity, we are going to relentlessly apply pressure on al-Qaeda and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same," essentially reaffirming his commitment to the strategy decided on last fall. Petraeus' Senate confirmation is likely to go through without incident.
Liberals were hoping that McChrystal's departure would offer an opportunity for the administration to rethink a strategy that some suspect was adopted largely due to political pressure to continue the mission.They point to the recent difficulties in Marjah as evidence the strategy isn't working to dislodge or weaken the Taliban, and maintain that the structure and corruption of the Afghan government is an intractable problem. At the very least, they would have liked a serious re-evaluation of the viability of the current counterinsurgency strategy.
The appointment of Gen. Petraeus is likely to squelch any such discussion before it gets started. The near superhero status Petraeus enjoys isn't simply due to his intelligence or capability as a leader -- it's also the result of media mythmaking about the Iraq War. Despite the ease with which the country has come to adopt the narrative that the 2007 troop escalation and the shift to a counterinsurgency strategy singlehandedly turned the Iraq War around, it remains untrue. As Michael Cohen helpfully continues to remind us, there were a number of factors involved, including ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, the Sunni tribes turning on al-Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq and the Sadr ceasefire.
These things are complicated though, and it's easier both for the press and for the general audience to shoehorn the complicated story of the turnaround in Iraq into a single epic narrative starring an indomitable warrior-hero, and the media won't be able to resist the temptation to call this a sequel. The problem with flattening these things into facile narratives is that it dissuades Americans from thinking critically about the implications -- both moral and practical -- of important policy decisions. Which -- aside from his admirable record -- is surely part of why Petraeus was chosen.
-- A. Serwer