Afghanistan

Obama and McChrystal

UPDATE Obama has made his choice and McChrystal has been sacked and replaced by General David Petraeus who was behind the surge policy in Iraq.

The BBC reports that Obama said he had made the decision “with considerable regret” but said McChrystal had failed to “meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general”.

He added: “I believe it is the right decision for our national security. I don’t make this decision based on any difference in policy with General McChrystal… nor do I make this decision out of any sense of personal insult.”

From earlier – We’re going to find out very shortly whether Barack Obama will sack General Stanley McChrystal after this highly critical comments in Rolling Stone magazine. The two are set to meet in Washington shortly.

There have been many praise worthy words written about McChrystal and his strategy for Afghanistan since he took over last year. He arrived having been credited in part (general David McKiernan is also credited) with helping turn the fight in Iraq around through the use of a special-forces campaign — the story of which is told in Mark Urban’s very good ‘Task Force Black’.

That campaign claimed success for the death of Al Qaeda in Iraq leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the Sunni awakening among others. It is that strategy that he has taken with him to Afghanistan. It pushes the idea of bringing moderate Taliban elements to the table as he did in Iraq with the Sunnis. This was achieved with the help of British Major-General Sir Graeme Lamb who McChrystal has appointed to work with him again in Afghanistan.

His Rolling Stone comments have come at an unfortunate moment. The Americans have been in Afghanistan for nine years and want out; Britain, which suffered its 300th casualty this week, also wants out; as do the shrinking band of allies.

In the Rolling Stone piece McChrystal and his aides do not pull their punches. McChrystal and his aides laid into Vice President Joe Biden (“Biden?” the aide was quoted as saying. “Did you say: Bite me?”);  the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke (“wounded animal”) as well as his former superior general Karl Eikenberry – now US ambassador to Kabul. Eikenberry had been accused of duplicitous behaviour sending critical cables back to Washington. Not the first time he has been accused of stirring political trouble as detailed in James Fergusson’s great book on the British in Afghanistan”A Million Bullets”

McChrystal has been insubordinate and has apologised, but is that enough for Obama who has political and military concerns to weight? Obama is accused of looking uncomfortable around the military, but this is true of other democratic presidents. It is an old story about Democrats and a storyline in ‘The West Wing’. The same charge was often levelled at Tony Blair and Labour.

Is it partly because of this that Democrats are so vociferous in their calls for McChrystal to go?

Obama will no doubt be sorely tempted to fire his upstart general and show that he is a Democrat who can make tough decisions when it counts. He needs that win and he might think he needs that a lot right now as he is stands accused over the BP spill of being weak and not showing sufficient leadership or judgement.

But if he sacks McChrystal, despite other candidates being on hand to replace the loose lipped general, it will add gloom to the Afghanistan campaign and uncertainty. It could also be a calamitous mistake as many are suggesting. Obama sacked the last general, McKiernan, when he came into office before then appointing McChrystal who has the support of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. For what that’s worth.

McChrystal from everything I’ve read looks like a man who needs more time. BBC journalist Lyse Doucet said she once asked Afghan Defence Minister Gen Rahim Wardak what he thought of the general. He replied that he believed Gen McChrystal was the first US commander since 2001 to put his own career on the line in his Afghan campaign. He has certainly done that. She says he also insisted he believed they could win in Afghanistan. Will he get the chance?

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