The Afghanistan plot thickens, as though that was even remotely possible:
The top US commander in Afghanistan has been summoned to Washington in the wake of a magazine article that quotes him and aides criticising senior Obama administration officials and diplomats.
Gen Stanley McChrystal has apologised over the article in Rolling Stone.
In it, Gen McChrystal is quoted as saying he feels betrayed by US ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry.
The general’s aides mock Vice-President Joe Biden and say he is “disappointed” with President Barack Obama.
A White House official said Gen McChrystal had “been directed to attend [Wednesday's] monthly meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan in person” rather than by teleconference…
The BBC’s Quentin Sommerville in northern Afghanistan says the article highlights the long-suspected divisions between the US military and administration officials.
One of the main targets of the article appears to be Mr Eikenberry…
“Are you asking about Vice-President Biden?” McChrystal asks. “Who’s that?”
An aide then says: “Biden? Did you say: Bite Me?”
Another aide refers to a key Oval Office meeting with the president a year ago.
The aide says it was “a 10-minute photo op”, adding: “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was… he didn’t seem very engaged. The boss was pretty disappointed…”
Another aide refers to national security adviser, James Jones, as a “clown stuck in 1985″.
Of an e-mail from US special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, Gen McChrystal says: “Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke… I don’t even want to open it.”
This sort of thing is what happens when a senior officer and his aides, under pressure, blurt out the truth. Biden is indeed something of a stuffed shirt, and the president has been disappointing to many people who once hoped for more.
Update: Most of the general’s dissatisfaction appears to have been generated by friction with US ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who was himself a 3-star general and former commander of US forces in Afghanistan. The sometimes controversial COIN changes that McChrystal has instituted are changes to Eikenberry’s policies, while the ambassador has declined to release funds to sponsor the kind of local anti-Taliban militias and infrastructure upgrades in Kanduhar that made the Sons of Iraq game changers in the Sunni-dominated Iraqi province of Anbar. As for Holbrooke and Jones, well: Too many cooks spoil the broth.
Back story here.
Some officials said (McChrystal) has built his relationship with Karzai at the expense of candor. In some instances, he has chosen a less politically controversial path, U.S. officials said, citing his decision to work with Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s half brother, rather than stress his alleged criminal activity.
“If I don’t have credibility with President Karzai, then I think I can’t be an effective commander here,” McChrystal said. “And it doesn’t mean just getting along with him and telling him what he wants to hear. It’s convincing him that I’m being a reliable and honest interlocutor with him.”
Eikenberry, meanwhile, has had to deliver tougher messages about corruption and governance that often upset Karzai, and his rapport with the mercurial president has seemed to suffer.
During a lengthy policy review in the fall, Eikenberry argued against sending additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. And U.S. officials said he continues to think that the United States should find other Afghan figures, including provincial leaders, to work with rather than rely so heavily on Karzai. Eikenberry’s position infuriated Karzai, who often views U.S. support for “sub-national governments” in Afghanistan as a threat to his authority.
Eikenberry reports to State, and State is unhappy with the level of corruption in Afghanistan. McChrystal has chosen to deal with the devil he knows, who also happens to be the democratically elected president of a sovereign state, however corrupt that process may have been. State wants a perfect partner, McChrystal appears to have taken the longer view, declining to let perfection be the enemy of “good enough, for now.”
Analysis: If Eikenberry and McChrystal could have gotten along in the Iraq mold of Petreaus/Crocker , they would have done so by now – both are savvy enough to know that you can’t shape effective policy in Washington by dividing in public in Kabul. If they can’t get on the same page, one of them will have to go, and I suspect it’s going to end up being McChrystal.
And based upon the way Afghanistan was allowed to slide during Eikenberry’s military oversight, it’s nothing like clear to me that McChrystal ought to be the one to go. But that’s the way the stone will probably roll.
Update 2: It’s worth at least considering that this is not a gaffe, but a carefully considered way of getting out before the walls come down. If the war has become, for whatever reason, unwinnable, do you go down fighting, or do you engineer an exit? I know what I would do, but then I didn’t have a 3-star reputation to protect. Probably because I didn’t have a 3-star’s political instincts.
If you’re ready to cross over the tinfoil hat line, you may want to even consider it a kabuki theater organized all the way to the top masquerading as an exit strategy.
Wheels within wheels.
Update 3: Glenn Reynolds, via Politico -
McChrystal’s greatest crime is speaking the truth — that the White House is unserious about this war, and that its foreign policy team isn’t up to the job. And if he were saying this about a Republican administration, the press would be hailing him as a great hero, speaking truth to power.
Nonetheless, serving generals aren’t supposed to speak this way about their civilian masters, and so if the Rolling Stone reports are true, he should probably be sacked.
But once that’s over, we need to look seriously at the Administration’s neglect of the war in Afghanistan (and its neglect of events in Iraq, for that matter). In addition, McChrystal’s remarks, which sound kind of punchy, taken together with Gen. Petraeus’ collapse in front of Congress last week, suggest that out military leadership is worn out. That deserves attention, too.
And then there’s the Wapo’s Jackson Diehl:
The real trouble is that Obama never resolved the dispute within his administration over Afghanistan strategy. With the backing of Gates and the Pentagon’s top generals, McChrystal sought to apply to Afghanistan the counterinsurgency approach that succeeded over the last three years in Iraq, an option requiring the deployment of tens of thousands more troops. Biden opposed sending most of the reinforcements and argued for a “counterterrorism plus” strategy centered on preventing al-Qaeda from establishing another refuge.
In the end, Obama adopted what is beginning to look like a bad compromise. He approved most of the additional troops that McChrystal sought, but attached the July, 2011 deadline for beginning withdrawals. Since then both sides have been arguing their cases, in private and in public, to the press and to members of Congress.
McChrystal may be at fault for expressing his frustrations to Rolling Stone. He is not at fault for the lack of coherence in the Afghan campaign or the continued feuding over strategy. That is Obama’s responsibility.
Well, yes. But you surge to Afghanistan with president you have, not the one you wish you had.
Update 4: The emerging consensus among the chatterati is that McChrystal will have to go. Which is probably true, one of the risks of falling on your sword is that it hurts. But then the question becomes, who would replace him?
With the nomination of Marine General James Amos for Commandant of the Marine Corps, I happen to know that General James Mattis happens to be available for four-star work. The guy certainly has a way with words.
Update 5: The Rolling Stone article itself. Read for content – and not for the reporter’s reflexively anti-military spin – it’s not so bad, really. The “Biden who?” thing was about keeping his mouth shut if he had to answer a question about his previous disagreement with the vice president at a dinner party in Paris.
The article is not precisely a hatchet job, but it has handed a hatchet to McChrystal’s many foes. If the general does in fact tender his resignation – as is rumored – the real question will be 1) whether the president accepts it, and 2) who, if anyone, can rescue the mission.
Having offered to resign, the general has effectively taken the high road from a low spot. I wonder if the president has the courage – or wisdom – to match the general’s?