So I think it's pretty safe to say that I have a rather pessimistic attitude toward the current US mission in Afghanistan - and theoretically the replacement of one COIN devotee with an even bigger COIN devotee should little do cheer up my mood, but as it turns out that's not the case. I'm actually feeling surprising upbeat today.
It starts with the words of President Obama in the Rose Garden yesterday, General McChrystal's actions - according to Obama, "undermine the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system." Exactly right. Obama fired his commanding general in Afghanistan because McChrystal's insubordinate behavior threatens the very foundation of civilian-military relations. And by Obama sacking McChrystal he is sending an unmistakable signal to the armed forces - I'm in charge.
All of this matters because the words captured by Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings were not some isolated incident. They reflect a level of disrespect for the commander-in-chief that goes back to last year's Afghanistan review. Whether it was the constant leaks that boxed Obama in on escalating in Afghanistan or the off-the-record criticisms of Obama by "senior military officials" or even McChrystal's appearance in London last October that dismissed the Vice President's call for a counter-terrorism policy it's been a pretty steady drumbeat of rather brazen military pushback. And it wasn't just words; from a strategic standpoint McChrystal's approach in Afghanistan has seemingly flouted the President's timeline for commencing withdrawals of June 2011 and his order not to send American troops anywhere that can't be turned over to the ANSF by that date. The disconnect between our military strategy and the president's guidance had become palpable.
And let's face it, the level of disrespect in the military for the president (particularly those with a D next to their name) goes back even further. As Bob Killebrew, a Senior Fellow at CNAS said to me in an e-mail conversation, "When I came into the Army in the late '60s, political discussions just didn't happen -- at least where I was. The atmosphere changed noticeably when Clinton was elected -- at least, that was the first time I saw junior officers at a social gathering joking about the commander-in-chief in front of their seniors and not being corrected." For practically the last 20 years, in ways both trivial and deeply consequential, the civilian military balance has slowly eroded.
Today, Barack Obama put an end to all that. Thanks to Stan McChrystal's astonishing lack of judgment the President was given the opportunity to publicly reassert civilian control of the armed forces - and he did it in the most forceful way imaginable. That, in of itself, would make today's event a very good thing.
But I think the implications run deeper. First of all, something tells me that there won't be too many officers wiling to speak ill of the commander-in-chief to a reporter any time soon. The back-biting and the increasingly tense relationship between the civilian leadership and the armed forces is also unlikely to continue; and again, not a moment too soon. If there are military officers worried about the president's decision-making or the current strategy in Afghanistan I can't imagine you're going to be hearing much about it in the pages of the New York Times or Washington Post.
Second, remember that Jonathan Alter article a few weeks ago where President Obama is quoted as asking General Petraeus if he could get the mission in Afghanistan completed in 18 months - and if not no one is going to suggest the US should stay longer in Afghanistan - and Petraeus responded, "Yes sir."
Well it's pretty hard to see how Petraeus gets to walk away from that. So this talk I keep reading about how picking Petraeus means we're likely going to stay in Afghanistan even longer doesn't ring true at all. If anything, the exact opposite and it seems as though Petraeus will now be under enormous pressure to stick by his promise to Obama and begin troop withdrawals by 2011. Maybe at one point Obama might have bended the rules or even been flexible if McChrystal or Petraeus were able to show "progress" in Afghanistan; not anymore.
And while this is unlikely to lead to a wholesale - and much-needed - change in strategy one would imagine that it might lead to other important tactical changes around the margins. For example, it will be very interesting to see if the long-planned offensive in Kandahar, which would almost certainly lengthen US involvement in the Afghan fight, still happens. Or perhaps there will be new efforts to open political negotiations with the Taliban. And I'll even be even more curious to see if the current, restrictive rules of engagement for US troops are relaxed by a general who hardly practiced the same sort of population centric COIN so favored by McChrystal. Quite simply, there is going to be enormous pressure on Petraeus to show results, particularly by December when the first major review of the Afghanistan policy is supposed to occur.
In the end, what matters perhaps more than anything else is that Obama is now quite firmly in charge of Afghan policy - and the longer, even open-ended, commitment favored by the generals is on the outs.
Yglesias argues that "the political power of the doves in the administration is relatively low vis-a-vis the political power of hawks in uniform." But I think this is backwards; this whole episode has strengthened Obama immeasurably (Josh Marshall makes a similar point) It's allowed him to assert his control over the war effort and it's made it much, much harder for the military to put up any sort of fight - even against a policy they oppose.
To be sure, there is still major reason for concern about our current Afghanistan policy; and a new strategy would really help. But this whole episode has shifted the civilian/military balance in a potentially positive direction. The funny thing about this is that when Obama saw that Rolling Stone piece on Monday you have to think his reaction was "what's next." Who would have guessed that three days later he'd be smelling like roses
(BTW, if there is one other bright side from this whole situation it's that I may never have to spell the word McChrystal again - not that Petraeus is much of a walk in the park either, but still).