Time for Obama to rethink Afghanistan war strategy?
McChrystal is out, but the Afghanistan war will remain on the same course under David Petraeus. Some experts are clamoring for a change from the administration's counterinsurgency strategy.
When President Obama quickly and unblinkingly fired his military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, over the general's beyond-the-pale comments in a Rolling Stone interview last month, it raised once again a nagging question: Is this finally a golden ticket for addressing what ails Afghanistan?Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Despite calls to use the moment to reassess a war going wrong, Mr. Obama's no-hand-wringing choice to replace McChrystal with Gen. David Petraeus seemed to say, "No."
For supporters of the president's strategy, that reassessment was made last fall, when Obama rebuffed some of his closest aides and opted for a counterinsurgency strategy to be carried out with 30,000 additional US troops. The decision to go with Petraeus, the father of the strategy Obama chose for Afghanistan, was essentially one that addresses a case of insubordination while giving the counterinsurgency approach time to deliver, they say.
"This is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy," Obama said in his June 23 Rose Garden statement announcing the change of command for the Afghanistan war.
But coming at a time of rising anxiety over signs of deterioration in Afghanistan, the president's stay-the-course approach was met with concern in some quarters.
"The real failure in Afghanistan is the failure of the counterinsurgency strategy, and it doesn't really matter if it's McChrystal or Petraeus himself implementing the Petraeus strategy, it's never going to deliver fast enough to answer the public's misgivings," says Michael Desch, an expert in civilian-military relations in foreign-policy implementation at Notre Dame University in Indiana. "There was no reassessment of policy here," he adds, "so I see no reason to expect different results six months from now" when Obama holds his year-on review of Afghanistan policy.
The change in command comes as US and NATO forces in June ended their deadliest month of the nearly nine-year-old war. New offensives against the Taliban have been delayed amid setbacks in parts of the country once thought to be cleared of militants. Indeed, the Taliban appear to be gaining influence, even as more US troops put boots on the ground. Afghan security forces show few signs of rising to the challenge of assuming NATO's security function.
For all these reasons, the US public appears to be following its European counterparts in waning support for the war. Many analysts, too, are urging what Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, calls a "sweeping" review of Afghanistan policy. "The president was wise to act swiftly to replace his theater commander; he should act no less decisively in reviewing [Afghanistan] policy," wrote Mr. Haass the day after Obama fired McChrystal. Saying the policy "offers little likelihood of enduring results that would come close to justifying the enormous costs," Haass called for "scaling back" the US military presence and focusing more on inducing moderate Taliban leaders to break with Al Qaeda.
Unswayed by such admonitions, supporters of the counterinsurgency strategy – with its emphasis on building relations with the Afghan people and on developing Afghan police and Army forces – say now is the time for patience and policy implementation, not a policy review.