Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Meet The New Boss

It's hardly surprising that Gen. Stanley McChrystal has been fired as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan by President Obama - you can't badmouth your bosses on the record and expect it not to have consequences when it comes to light. But it does reveal a troublesome disconnect between civilian and military leadership on the question of Afghanistan, as well as once again expose one of the inherent strategic flaws of country's command structure.

About certain subjects, counterinsurgency strategy among them, military leaders are likely to be far more knowledgable than any President, no matter how intelligent or immersed in the issues he may be. Presidents generally acknowledge this by deferring to the stratetgic prerogatives of the military commanders they appoint, but when military leadership loses faith in the competence of its civilian overseers, as it did with Donald Rumsfeld and co. during Bush's Presidency, or apparently has with Obama over the past several months, things can get problematic. People like McChrystal, trained to think about problems like Afghanistan from a military perspective, are likely to have minimal awareness, concern, or patience for the political aspects of the issue, but a President (particularly one in his first term, with midterm elections that look to be rocky ones for his party looming) has little choice but to think about them. Hence they're unlikely to consider the limitations that political vulnerability places on a President's strategic choices legitimate, and when they feel that the President is sacrificing the opportunity for military success in order to improve his or his party's political prospects, they're likely to mouth off about it, at least privately. I happen to think Afghanistan is a hopeless, or at least very daunting, case as a nation-building project - but the difficulty of the task only makes McChrystal venting his frustration at feeling like he's undertaking it with one hand tied behind his back even more understandable, if inexcusable.

Here's hoping General David Petraeus can improve the situation. He's obviously got some political skills and has plenty of experience resolving conflict, and most observers agree he did an excellent job overseeing U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. If anyone's up to the challenge of making something positive out of the mess in Afghanistan it's him.

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