General Stanley McChrystal has been summoned to Washington after giving an interview to Rolling Stone Magazine where he attacks the White House, the President, and almost every senior national security official. This is straight insubordination and is reminiscent of Bush’s firing of Admiral Fallon as CENTCOM commander and more famously Truman’s firing of General Douglas MacArthur. But this isn’t just a case of a general making a mistake talking to a reporter on the record, this is about a general trying to save his rep by desperately shifting blame to others.
The significance of this food fight is not in what was said, but in what it says about where the United States is in Afghanistan. It is becoming increasingly clear that General McChrystal has failed to achieve the unrealistic expectations he set for Afghanistan. What has become apparent is that Afghanistan is not Iraq and the mythic status now given to the surge in Iraq led to a significant degree of over-confidence on the part of McChrystal and others about their ability to turn the Afghan war around after it had utterly deteriorated year after year under the neglectful watch of the Bush administration. The much balleyhooed offensive on Marja has bogged down and was not the transformative event that was anticipated. The next offensive on Kandahar has been delayed due to lack of local buy-in. As Colin Cookman and Caroline Wadhams document in a recent report, the Afghan governance situation is a total disaster. The result is a situation in which McChrystal himself admits that “nobody is winning” and in which the U.S. is pursuing a strategy that lacks clear objectives and direction.
The struggles of McChrystal’s Afghan strategy have now led to a growing rift within the Obama administration over how to interpret the July 2011 deadline set by the President. In other words, was the surge part of an exit strategy as the President seemed to outline and the Vice President insisted, or is it just one more milestone – such as the many that were present during the first five years of the war in Iraq – that has little meaning? On the Sunday shows this weekend, a growing rift was present when Secretary Gates refused to endorse Vice President’s view that a large number of troops would be coming home in July 2011. And McChrystal’s latest interview can be seen as part of a larger effort by some in the military to box in the White House in order to push it to acquiesce to giving McChrystal more time.
But McChrystal overreached and his Rolling Stone interview, where his staff makes homophobic remarks, refers to Vice President Biden as “bite me,” and attacks anyone and everyone, seems like a desperate cry for help from a frustrated and failing General. McChrystal’s comments about US Ambassador to Afghanistan, and retired General, Karl Eikenberry, are the most instructive. Eikenberry had warned in a leaked memo that he had serious concerns over the trustworthiness of the Afghan government, yet McChrystal saw the criticism as merely historical posturing, stating about Eikenberry: “here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.'” This remark demonstrates that McChrystal is already fretting over how he his viewed at the end of the operation and he is no doubt worried about the blame for Afghanistan falling on his shoulders.
But in the end, this incident is much more than just about whether Stanley McChrystal still has a job. This incident tells us a lot about the current state of the Afghan operation – and the picture is not pretty. It also provides a moment that should deliver some clarity over whether the President will reaffirm that the strategy outlined last year is actually part of an exit strategy that will see our troops pulling out by July 2011 or whether this Afghan strategy – like the numerous Iraq strategies unveiled under President Bush – has simply become a strategy for endless war.