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.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Obama, with Vice President Biden, announced Gen. David Petraeus (r.) as top US commander in Afghanistan at the White House June 23.
Jason Straziuso/AP/File
Outgoing Gen. Stanley McChrystal, leaving on a 2009 trip to the war theater.

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?

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.

"That fundamental shift happened last fall" when Obama, after a lengthy deliberation, announced his new Afghanistan strategy, says Michael O'Hanlon, a US military and foreign-policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. "This episode was not about any disagreement over strategy. McChrystal and Obama remained the closest of allies in that sense," he adds, "so I don't believe it should be used as if it was that kind of moment."

Some supporters of Obama's decision to replace McChrystal with Petraeus, particularly among Republican members of Congress, say the president should also address problems on the civilian side of his Afghanistan team by cleaning house.

"The civilian side is, in my view, completely dysfunctional," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, who backed Obama's decision to replace McChrystal. Citing a need to "start over" in the relationship between the United States and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, he added, "I would urge the president to look at this as a chance to put new people on the ground without old baggage."

That comment appeared to zero in on the US ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry – perhaps best known for privately recommending to Obama last year against any "surge" of troops in Afghanistan because of a corrupt, ineffectual Afghan government. Other critics have called for replacing Richard Holbrooke, White House envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, variously referred to as "a bull in a china shop" or a "blowtorch."

But Mr. O'Hanlon, who says he is "a huge fan of McChrystal," suggests this is not the time to reshuffle the US civilian Afghan team any more than the magazine article flap required a change in the military command.

"There probably are pros and cons to how the overall mission is being handled by Eikenberry," he says, "but no one should think a new ambassador would be a panacea."

Even if Obama were to reshuffle his civilian Afghanistan team, it will not calm tensions over the war strategy, some critics say.

"The civil-military conflict in this war is just beginning," says Notre Dame's Mr. Desch, author of "Civilian Control of the Military." "Counterinsurgency takes a lot of time, its outcome is always nebulous, and those are not qualities that rally public support. The Obama administration is accurately reflecting the concerns over how much we can invest in this operation."

There's also the matter of the forthcoming clash over the president's goal for starting troop withdrawal in July 2011. Will it be a "conditions-based" withdrawal, as preferred by Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton? Or will it be a hard-and-fast pullback to a minimal US-NATO stabilization and counterterrorism force, as favored by Vice President Joe Biden?

In Senate testimony in June, Petraeus responded with a "qualified yes" when asked if he supports a deadline for a US withdrawal. His view: The pace of withdrawal should be based on conditions on the ground.

Senator Graham was more categorical. "If the president says, 'No matter what General Petraeus may recommend, we're going to leave in July 2011,' we lose the war," he said, foreshadowing the coming debate.

For the moment, Obama seems to have decided to entrust Afghanistan to Petraeus – with the idea of reviewing in December the policy for a war he has deemed to be "absolutely essential."


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