Obama’s risky gamble in firing McChrystal
In the rough and tumble worlds of Afghanistan and Pakistan, General Stanley McChrystal’s dismissal looks more like the act of a President floundering in a labyrinth than of a statesman steering a brutal war with sure hands.
President Barack Obama may have to pay a heavy price for buttressing the impression among battle-hardened nationalist, insurgents and terrorists that neither the American people nor his senior military and civilian brass is fully behind him.
In those countries, few find it credible that the top commander is fired because of some ill-advised comments about his civilian bosses. Conspiracy theories are already forming about dissension and in-fighting within and among Obama’s civilian and military coteries.
Afghanistan and Pakistan are old-style despotic societies where politicians are regarded with contempt by the military brass. The idea that a civilian President would fire the chief operational commander because of a whiff of insubordination is almost unthinkable particularly as Obama has nearly doubled troop strength to take the war to crescendo ahead of a final exit.
Al Qaeda and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have long argued that all American policy towards Muslims, including the war against Islam-inspired terrorism, is driven by domestic political considerations. McChrystal’s abrupt and terse removal confirms their belief because it looks as if Obama acted so as not to be accused of weakness by his political opponents.
It is well known in Afghanistan and surrounding countries that McChrystal has the best working relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, compared with Obama, Joe Biden, Robert Gates, Hilary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke. Karzai does not trust McChrystal but listens to him patiently because he trusts other high-level Americans even less.
From the chain of command viewpoint, McChrystal may have disrespected his civilian bosses and deserved to be fired but no other American commander knows the war theater better, including the social, economic and security imperatives for winning the Afghan people’s hearts and minds.
He is the rare military man who openly said American cannot kill its way out of Afghanistan. But he has been kicked out because he dared to air disagreements with his civilian bosses through the media backdoor.
Obama and his civilian advisors have a reasonable construct. The President has staked much political capital on using mainly US troops to run Taliban insurgents out of town and pushing the Afghan government and its military and police towards good governance after that. But neither has happened or seems very likely to happen with sufficient clarity before the August 2011 withdrawal schedule for US troops.
In local Af-Pak eyes, McChrystal, an expert navigator of US bureaucracy, did not make a careless mistake in giving the Rolling Stone interviews. He and his advisors willfully revealed the shortcomings of Obama’s policies to shake up the civilians taking America deeper into an unwinnable war.
If this war were about killing, McChrystal’s removal would be no great hurdle. Any general of an overwhelmingly superior military power knows how to rain death. But Obama turned winning hearts and minds of mostly rural Afghans into the main metric of victory instead of simply crushing the enemies.
American leaders may find this combination of war, development and nation building laudable. But it is puzzling to the fanatical Islamists and semi-literate foot soldiers shooting at US and NATO troops. To them, the top commander’s unceremonious dismissal looks like a desperate move to assert control over dissension about a war with nebulous goals.
Some 12 months before Obama’s deadline for withdrawing from Afghanistan, that dissension is seeping through the White House’s heavy lid of secrecy. One reason is the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban’s success so far in preventing American troops from sustainably securing territory in the most unruly regions. This has already caused enough stress in the White House to provoke McChrystal’s removal for offences that would get little attention elsewhere. Coming months may be even more stressful.