Gen. Stanley McChrystal's Afghanistan friendly-fire incident.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 22 2010 2:56 PM

Stan Not the Man

The top general in Afghanistan has a friendly-fire incident.

Also in Slate, Fred Kaplan explains what the Rolling Stone profile reveals about McChrystal's command and predicts what's likely to happen to the general.

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But the main reason the president has to show restraint is that he can't let the controversy become a proxy for undoing the Afghanistan policy he still supports. He has to rap McChrystal on the knuckles but turn the message back to the mission—the war in Afghanistan is at a very tough point. Violence is increasing, and this year may be one of the deadliest years for American troops. Progress has been slow. Unless Obama has problems with McChrystal's performance, and there's no evidence that he does, McChrystal's remarks are beside the point. McChrystal will have to go back to Afghanistan and carry out Obama's mission, and he can't do that from a weakened position. That's true not just with his own troops, but with leaders in Afghanistan. If the administration posture is really to be more accommodating of President Karzai then getting rid of McChrystal makes no sense. He's the administration's best asset with the Afghan president.

Everyone I talk to, both inside and outside Washington culture, wants to know: Why would McChrystal (or his aides) say such things? One Pentagon source says the volcanic ash is to blame. The reporter was supposed to have limited time with McChrystal. When the ash hit, the general and his team were stuck. The reporter essentially became embedded. The military men forgot they had a reporter near and expressed sentiments that are very close to the top (sometimes because they were drunk).

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The most damaging part of the article, from a policy perspective, is its description of the counterinsurgency strategy. This is the central theory behind both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Petraeus used to be the face of the counterinsurgency doctrine—calm, learned, steady. McChrystal was thought to be in his mold. If this article becomes gospel, there's a chance that the reckless McChrystal becomes the new face of the strategy. This will make it harder for proponents to argue for the strategy in the future if for no other reason than it distracts from signs of progress.

The second half of the article suggests that the strategy has been a failure because the troops asked to carry out the theory don't buy it. This is one of the key challenges and tensions of counterinsurgency warfare, as Marine Gen. James Mattis explained when I talked to him earlier this year. But the tension between assuming more physical risk and using less force in the hopes of winning over the population is not a new tension. It's a part of the strategy and complexity that Obama signed onto after months of review.

Still, that doesn't mean that Obama welcomes the chance to reiterate his strategic rationale. This controversy will kidnap the White House agenda. Today's message was supposed to be about health care, and in his remarks the president was distracted by a fly. He shooed it away, joking that the last time that had happened he'd dispatched the fly completely. This McChrystal story is a much bigger distraction and will require much more careful handling.

AP Video: Will Obama Fire McChrystal?

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