Thursday, July 01, 2010

The McChrystal Question: Can Obama Command the Afghan War?

President Barack Obama’s decision to fire General Stanley McChrystal shocked the public keenly aware of the War on Terror in Afghanistan. Shortly after the presidential election in 2008, I mentioned that the military preferred John McCain over Barack Obama, because Obama had little experience in national security. A Japanese journalist Yoshiki Hidaka, currently Visiting Fellow at the Hudson Institute, comments in his book “America Has Chosen a Misfortune” that Obama is an exceptional president in history, because he is one of the least competent American politicians as the commander in chief. It is likely that General McChrystal’s criticism to the Obama administration in Rolling Stone is related to this deep-rooted background. Therefore, it is vital to explore the impact of this incident on the Afghan War and US national security policy as a whole.

First, let me review the controversial article, which led General McChrystal to resign the Afghan War commander. Last September, I published three posts on Obama’s attitude to McChrystal’s request for surge (See 1, 2, and 3). In addition, I mentioned that British Defence Secretary-then Bob Ainsworth was frustrated with Obama’s indecisiveness to help the British army in Helmand and Kandahar. President Obama’s competence to command the Afghan War has been critically questioned from the beginning.

In an interview with Michael Hastings, General Stanley McChrystal mentioned this initial split with the Obama administration. McChrystal emphasized that it was he who has the best relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to make his administration credible for counterinsurgency operations, not Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke. Also, he criticized the Defense Department for delaying to deploy troops for counterinsurgent attack this summer (“The Runaway General”; Rolling Stone; June 22, 2010).

Shortly after firing General Stanley McChrystal, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen held a press conference to ease the shock among the public, as shown in the video below. Both Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen stressed that the strategy in Afghanistan would not change despite the Rolling Stone incident. However, the media questioned President Obama’s leadership in the war, because a Four Star General criticized a civilian chief executive of the government so carelessly.

While Afghan media worry negative effects of this shock on US and NATO forces mission, Pakistani media are concerned with erosion of credibility of US-led operations (McChrystal fired: Reaction from Afghanistan and beyond”; BBC News; 25 June 2010).

Retired Colonel Oliver North of US Marine Corps criticizes President Obama for his “I am in charge” attitude to appeal his left-wing base. Also, North points out that newly appointed General David Petraeus will face difficulty in dealing with the Obama administration, because “In Baghdad, he had a close working relationship with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the respect of other coalition leaders, a supportive, united White House and backing from a bipartisan coalition in Congress. The command in Kabul offers few of these advantages, for the O-Team is nearly incapacitated by internal rivalries and enormous egos” (“General Madness”; FOX News; June 25, 2010).

However, the problem is not who is in charge, but how to define the victory. Though it is necessary to intensify counterinsurgent attacks, US officials explore some compromise with the Taliban, as the Karzai administration fails to improve governance as the West expects(Obama's Afghan Problem: Not a General, But a War Strategy”; Time; June 25, 2010).

The problem is not the nature of this war but the command structure within current administration. Thomas Donnelly, Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, points out that “the team of rivals” undermines ISAF effort in this war. Vice President Joseph Biden rejected vital points of the McChrystal strategy, which was long term commitments to counterinsurgency operations and deployment of further troops (“Is Obama Committed to Victory in Afghanistan?”; AOL News; June 23, 2010). Regarding “the rivals”, Danielle Pletka, Vice President of the AEI, argues that Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry go as well, because they tried to discredit General McChrystal, instead of closely working with international forces on the ground (“The Effects of the Change in Command”: Washington Post; June 28, 2010).

As opposed to dismal outlook stated in Time Magazine, Frederick Kagan, Resident Fellow at the AEI, and Kimberly Kagan, President of the Institute for the Study of War, comment that ISAF has made substantial progress under General Stanley McChrystal. Both experts insist that close partnership with local actors is essential even though they do not always meet Western expectation for good governance. They say ISAF will have to refocus its efforts at every level away from a binary choice between removing and empowering the malign actors, and toward the kind of nuanced approach that was successful in Iraq, appropriately modified” (“A Winnable War”; Weekly Standard; July 5, 2010).

The war is not easy, but there is a strategy for victory. General David Petraeus understands how to fight against insurgents as shown in Iraq. It is President Barack Obama’s leadership that really matters. His incompetence to manage the team disappointed General Stanley McChrystal, which led to the Rolling Stone criticism. Can Obama really command this war? That is the question.