War Stories

McChrystal: Gone and Soon Forgotten

Naming Petraeus in his place is a stroke of personnel genius.

Also in Slate, John Dickerson calls Barack Obama’s tapping David Petraeus to replace McChrystal “Crisis Management 101.”

Gen. Stanley McChrystal

President Barack Obama has accomplished what many might have thought impossible just a few hours earlier. He has fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, his combat commander in Afghanistan, in such a way that not only will the general go unmissed but his name will likely soon be forgotten.

Obama’s decision to replace McChrystal with Gen. David Petraeus is a stroke of brilliance, an unassailable move, politically and strategically.

On a political level, McChrystal has many fans inside Congress and the military, but Petraeus has orders of magnitude more. No one could accuse Obama of compromising the war effort, knowing that Petraeus is stepping in.

On a strategic level, while McChrystal designed the U.S. military policy in Afghanistan, Petraeus is its ur-architect. Petraeus literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency strategy while McChrystal was still running the black-bag hunter-killers of the special-ops command.

Petraeus has also spent the last year and a half as head of U.S. Central Command, supervising military operations throughout the Persian Gulf and central Asia, including Afghanistan. McChrystal has built relations with political and military leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Petraeus has been building the same relations, plus some.

Those who might have expected a scaling back in the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan will, and should, be disappointed. In his Rose Garden speech this afternoon, Obama made the point explicitly: “This is a change in personnel,” he said, “but it is not a change in policy.”

One of those who might be disappointed in this remark—and in the naming of Petraeus as McChrystal’s replacement—is Michael Hastings, the author of the Rolling Stone article that triggered this chain of events.

The last, and less-noticed, part of the article, which was called “The Runaway General,” not only amounted to a critique of the whole idea of counterinsurgency but also suggested that President Obama bought into the concept, ensnared by the wily Gen. McChrystal, without grasping its full implications.

Hastings made this claim explicitly in an interview aired Tuesday on Public Radio International’s morning show, The Takeaway. “President Obama has lost control of the Afghan war policy, and I believe he lost control of it almost a year ago,” Hastings said. Obama, he continued, “did not know what he was getting into when he announced the hiring of McChrystal and then also the sending of 21,000 troops, because immediately months later, he was asked to send 40,000 more. … And that, obviously, was shocking to President Obama because last year it took his, you know, there was this three-month review period.”

I have heard from some on the inside that Obama hadn’t focused so deeply on Afghanistan when he decided in March 2009 to send in 21,000 extra troops. Hastings is also right that Obama was initially surprised to receive the request for another 40,000. However, during the “three-month review period,” which climaxed in his approval of 30,000 additional troops and a new counterinsurgency strategy, Obama came to understand fully what he was getting into, its risks, and its opportunity. It’s absurd to suggest that McChrystal or anybody else maneuvered him onto the road he wound up taking.

For better or for worse, this is Obama’s war. His differences with McChrystal had nothing to do with policy.

The war and the counterinsurgency strategy are, clearly, not going very well. Yet it was always extremely unlikely that Obama would change course, at least not until December, when his commanders are scheduled to conduct a comprehensive assessment of their progress. Firing McChrystal was bound to make many important players—U.S. troops and their officers, allied commanders, and the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan—wonder about Obama’s commitment to the strategy. Replacing McChrystal with Petraeus should allay those worries, as well as frustrate the strategy’s critics and perhaps the Taliban insurgents, too.

Petraeus is taking a demotion, from commander of the entire region, to take this post. One can imagine Obama’s sales pitch, telling the general that he’s the only American who could take over from McChrystal without any need to work up to speed and, therefore, without causing further delays in the (already much-slowed-down) military operation. It’s the sort of pitch that Petraeus would have a hard time turning down, in part out of a sense of duty, in part because he, too, has a personal and professional stake in the mission’s success.

By taking the assignment, Petraeus also gains enormous leverage, should he decide to use it. A year ago, Obama, at the urging of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, relieved Gen. David McKiernan of command in Afghanistan in order to hire Gen. McChrystal, who seemed more suitable for the new strategy. Obama would find it extremely difficult to fire Petraeus, who is much more of a household name, a year hence, even if he had good reason to do so.

The good news is that Petraeus and his entourage have displayed, over the years, nothing of the contempt for civilian control that the Rolling Stone piece revealed was running rampant in McChrystal’s shop. (One Pentagon official, who knows both generals, said yesterday, well before it was clear that McChrystal would go, much less who would replace him, “It’s unimaginable that Petraeus and his people would act this way, even without a reporter standing around.”) Petraeus is much more disciplined, much more politically attuned, in every sense of the phrase.

One question still open is whether McChrystal’s is but the first shoe to drop. In his Rose Garden speech, Obama emphasized the need for “unity of effort” within the U.S. national-security team and across the multinational alliance. Given McChrystal’s trash talk toward both, Obama said he couldn’t achieve that unity, and thus couldn’t meet success in Afghanistan, “without making this change.”

Still, canning McChrystal doesn’t end the dysfunctional disunity that has plagued the war effort for many months. The U.S. ambassador, Gen. Karl Eikenberry, is on record as stating that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is an unsuitable partner for a counterinsurgency campaign. He may be right—he almost certainly is right—but, since counterinsurgency cannot succeed without a suitable partner heading the national government, Eikenberry is in essence disagreeing with the policy. His relations with McChrystal were exacerbated by the fact that the two men are longtime rivals; but those personal animosities clouded a professional tension that is probably untenable. If U.S. policy isn’t going to change, Eikenberry, too, should go.

Richard Holbrooke should be sent packing, as well. He’s the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but after he screamed at Karzai at one of their meetings, he’s no longer welcome at the palace in Kabul. (It took a trip by Sen. John Kerry and 300 cups of tea to settle the Afghan president down.) Holbrooke would have been canned a while ago, were it not for special pleading by his immediate boss and longtime friend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But, as Obama said today, “War is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general, or a president.” He should expand the list to include “a special envoy.”

A final word: On Tuesday, I predicted that Obama would stick with McChrystal, in part because the general’s dissings of civilian authority didn’t extend to a dispute over policy, in part because losing him as commander might be seen as jeopardizing the mission. It turns out that the president took his constitutional responsibilities, and his obligations as commander in chief, more seriously than I thought he might—and figured out a way to do so without compromising the mission in the slightest. Who wouldn’t be impressed?

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