President Obama fired his commander in Afghanistan after the general and his staff made intemperate comments about administration officials that appeared in a magazine article. But what was behind the disparaging comments? They may be symptomatic of a deeper frustration with the conduct of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.
By themselves, the comments by General Stanley McChrystal and his aides, made in the presence of a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine, are harsh. One aide calls National Security Advisor General James Jones a clown. Another rude comment is directed at Vice President Biden. General McChrystal himself speaks disparagingly of special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, when he bemoans the receipt of another email from the diplomat, and also makes derisive comments about U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry. And he says he did not connect with President Obama.
It could be, as some analysts have suggested, that General McChrystal and his aides were expressing a contempt for civilian authority held by some members of the military. But Retired General Barry McCaffrey says they were venting a deeper sense of frustration. Unfortunately for General McChrystal, they did it with a reporter around.
"The policy surrounding them has been too unstructured, too incoherent, too little commitment. What's the responsibility of Ambassador Holbrooke, of Eikenberry, of the various free agents in this whole process? So I think they got frustrated. And then they forgot that they weren't a group of commandos talking bad about the Marines or something. They were talking about their own chain of command," said McCaffrey.
A sense of frustration over the war runs through the article in Rolling Stone that cost General McChrystal his job. Major General Bill Mayville, who was chief of operations for General McChrystal, is quoted as saying that the endgame in Afghanistan is, as he puts it, not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win.
The strategy for Afghanistan was reached in 2009, after a lengthy policy review. At its centerpiece was an influx of 30,000 additional troops to bolster a counterinsurgency effort. If all goes according to plan, withdrawals could begin by July of next year.
But insurgent attacks have sharply increased, and along with them U.S. and NATO casualties. An offensive in the southern town of Marja has dragged on, and another major offensive to retake Kandahar has been delayed. The Afghan government continues to be riddled with corruption. President Hamid Karzai has been trying to open some sort of reconciliation talks with the Taliban, but the Taliban, sensing that they have the upper hand, have balked.
In the whole controversy over the article, it is President Karzai who has been General McChrystal's most vocal supporter.
In announcing the appointment of General David Petraeus to replace General McChrystal, President Obama reiterated the strategy, and that he expects all his national security team to get behind it.
"We are going to break the Taliban's momentum. We are going to build Afghan capacity. We are going to relentlessly apply pressure on al-Qaeda and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same. That's the strategy that we agreed to last fall. That is the policy that we are carrying out in Afghanistan and Pakistan,"said the president.
But Professor Larry Goodson of the U.S. Army War College says that is really not a single strategy, but rather an attempt to weave several different strategies into one.
"Counterterrorism is one thread, the one that we've heard that Vice President Biden is very favorably disposed towards," he said. "The kind of state-building, counterinsurgency approach, another thread. The conventional combat operations that require larger numbers of troops that although subsumed under this broader counterinsurgency concept, that's another thread. But all those threads require different kinds of resources, and most importantly, different lengths of time to ripen and mature," he said.
The comments that appeared in Rolling Stone, Goodson says, show that the strategy debate was never really settled and is in fact ongoing, as well as frustration that there are so many different players involved.
"There's not really a unity of command. Perhaps some of that (Rolling Stone) article reflects maybe some of the real difficulties of that," he said. "You've got this general who's in charge of a good bit of it. But there's also this diplomat (Holbrooke) who's in charge of another bit of it, and another diplomat (Eikenberry) who's got another bit of it who's also a former general, the White House, the vice-president's office - a range of people. And they have different ideas about which part of the strategy really needs to be emphasized," said Goodson.
General Petraeus and General McChrystal have both demonstrated their competence and courage on the military battlefield. But analysts concur that when it comes to fighting bureaucratic wars, General Petraeus is better suited to that kind of combat than the man he replaces as commander in Afghanistan.