NOTE: This includes material posted earlier. It is published here as the electronic version of today’s AJC column.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal had to go.
“I welcome debate among my team, but I won’t tolerate division,” President Obama explained. And if you had any doubt about the gravity of McChrystal’s mistake, well, most Republican leaders applauded Obama’s decision. These days, that says a lot.
In his remarks, Obama also took time to address an even more important question: Should America stay or should we go? On that point, he was equally adamant: The personnel may change, but the policy in Afghanistan remains the same. We stay.
“We have a clear goal,” Obama said. “We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum. We are going to build Afghan capacity. We are going to relentlessly apply pressure on Al Qaeda and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same.”
As if to reinforce that message, Obama appointed Gen. David Petraeus to replace McChrystal. That too was widely applauded. The general’s standing will reassure leaders in Afghanistan and in NATO capitols while minimizing the chaos that is inevitable in a change of command. It also gives Obama’s strategy the best possible chance of succeeding. If Petraeus can’t pull it off, no one can.
That said, however, success looks more and more difficult. The change of strategy and influx of troops have so far not produced the expected effects, as McChrystal himself admitted before he committed career suicide. If that remains the case, a decision looms that will test the character of those involved. It will also test civilian control far more profoundly than McChrystal has.
When Obama announced his change of strategy, he set a deadline of December 2010 to gauge its progress and July 2011 to begin to transition U.S. forces out of the fight. But lately, with progress difficult to discern, Petraeus, McChrystal and others have tried to downplay those deadlines.
“I would not want to overplay the significance of this (December) review,” Petraeus told Congress just last week. “We would not make too much out of that.”
Over the past few days, we’ve been debating the Afghanistan situation in my AJC blog, which is populated by at least as many conservatives as liberals. I pointed out that in the Rolling Stone article that led to McChrystal’s demise, his staff suggested that rather than withdraw, they might request even more U.S. troops.
So I twice posed a question: Who believes such a step would be appropriate? Who believes that we need to deploy more troops to Afghanistan and recommit to a long fight?
In several hundred comments, not a single person, right or left, responded in favor of such an approach. Not one. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that a blog is not a scientifically sound survey, but that astonished me. Here in red state Georgia, most respondents — liberal and conservative — wanted to begin bringing our troops home immediately.
What we’re seeing, I fear, is a breach not between the Obama administration and parts of the U.S. military, but between the American people and its military. It is not by any means a breach of affection or respect, but instead of perspective.
The military comprises people who by instinct and training are fighters who refuse to lose. They never want to be pulled from the fight having failed to achieve their objective. If one approach isn’t working, they are always willing to believe that another approach will. That’s how they ought to be; that’s how we need them to be. Those are the kind of people you want defending your country.
But that’s also why civilian control is so important, and why the ultimate decision cannot be theirs, but ours. I fear we have reached the point when our respect for and in some cases deference to military leadership is causing us to betray them. We are letting them continue to fight and die for us not because we believe in their mission, but because we lack the heart to tell them to stop and find a better way.
In the Rolling Stone article, Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, McChrystal’s chief of operations, offered a succinct analysis of how this will end. “It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win,” he said. “This is going to end in an argument.”
For most Americans, I think the argument is over. Washington just doesn’t know it yet.