This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Relieving a capable commander in the middle of a war is a high-risk move. In the case of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, it’s a risk Barack Obama had to take.
Until this week, McChrystal looked like America’s best bet to hold the Taliban at bay and buy Afghanistan’s weak government enough time to secure the country.
American troops have been complaining about the civilian-friendly rules of engagement he has imposed, but McChrystal understands a fundamental truth: The Taliban cannot be defeated unless the Afghan population turns against them. Protecting civilians – from the Taliban, but also from American bombs and bullets – is the only way this can happen.
McChrystal is the architect of NATO’s strategy in Afghanistan, which has much in common with the strategy Gen. David Petraeus successfully used to turn around the war in Iraq.
Afghanistan and Iraq are very different countries, and there’s not the least guarantee that McChrystal’s plan can replicate Petraeus’ success in Iraq. But despite the recent spike in U.S. casualties, pessimism is also premature.
Casualties also spiked in the early months of the “surge” in Iraq, chiefly because the insurgents were being challenged far more aggressively for permanent control of the streets. The Obama-McChrystal build-up in Afghanistan can’t be judged this early – especially since U.S. troops won’t be at full strength until end of the summer.
But McChrystal himself can’t stay. He is too smart and too politically savvy not to be held accountable for the insolent remarks he and his staff recently made in front of a Rolling Stone reporter – who predictably featured them in a lengthy profile of the general.
Some things you can say to confidants, but not in the hearing of someone you know will likely broadcast them to an international audience.
McChrystal and his staff – who style themselves as Team America – are human. Like anyone else, they will gripe among themselves about their superiors and mock people they disagree with. But McChrystal foolishly let his frustration with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden go public by letting his staff dish about them to Rolling Stone, to the point of conveying his reported impressions that the president was unengaged and intimidated by military commanders.
This doesn’t rise to the level of Douglas MacArthur openly defying the wartime leadership of Harry Truman, but it involves the same bedrock constitutional principle of civilian control of the military. Obama would have looked gutless had he let McChrystal’s remarks pass. In wartime, a commander-in-chief does not have the option of looking gutless.
Fortunately a replacement for McChrystal was close at hand: Petraeus. For all McChrystal’s virtues, this looks like trade up.