McChrystal and the Deadline Debate

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My colleague Max Bergmann offers some wise words on the larger policy debate that forms the backdrop for General Stanley McChrystal’s blowup in Rolling Stone:

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.

The policy question here is more important than the fate of one man. The military can easily continue to pursue a McChrystal-style strategy on both the Afghan and US media fronts under different leadership. The more important question facing the White House is how they feel about that. A determined president will always prevail over the opinions of generals, but the political costs of attempting to do so can be quite high since military officials have a lot of prestige in American society.