McChrystal: Gone and Soon Forgotten
Naming Petraeus in his place is a stroke of personnel genius.
Also in Slate, John Dickerson calls Barack Obama's tapping David Petraeus to replace McChrystal "Crisis Management 101."
President Barack Obama has accomplished what many might have thought impossible just a few hours earlier. He has fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, his combat commander in Afghanistan, in such a way that not only will the general go unmissed but his name will likely soon be forgotten.
Obama's decision to replace McChrystal with Gen. David Petraeus is a stroke of brilliance, an unassailable move, politically and strategically.
On a political level, McChrystal has many fans inside Congress and the military, but Petraeus has orders of magnitude more. No one could accuse Obama of compromising the war effort, knowing that Petraeus is stepping in.
On a strategic level, while McChrystal designed the U.S. military policy in Afghanistan, Petraeus is its ur-architect. Petraeus literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency strategy while McChrystal was still running the black-bag hunter-killers of the special-ops command.
Petraeus has also spent the last year and a half as head of U.S. Central Command, supervising military operations throughout the Persian Gulf and central Asia, including Afghanistan. McChrystal has built relations with political and military leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Petraeus has been building the same relations, plus some.
Those who might have expected a scaling back in the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan will, and should, be disappointed. In his Rose Garden speech this afternoon, Obama made the point explicitly: "This is a change in personnel," he said, "but it is not a change in policy."
One of those who might be disappointed in this remark—and in the naming of Petraeus as McChrystal's replacement—is Michael Hastings, the author of the Rolling Stone article that triggered this chain of events.
The last, and less-noticed, part of the article, which was called "The Runaway General," not only amounted to a critique of the whole idea of counterinsurgency but also suggested that President Obama bought into the concept, ensnared by the wily Gen. McChrystal, without grasping its full implications.
Hastings made this claim explicitly in an interview aired Tuesday on Public Radio International's morning show, The Takeaway. "President Obama has lost control of the Afghan war policy, and I believe he lost control of it almost a year ago," Hastings said. Obama, he continued, "did not know what he was getting into when he announced the hiring of McChrystal and then also the sending of 21,000 troops, because immediately months later, he was asked to send 40,000 more. … And that, obviously, was shocking to President Obama because last year it took his, you know, there was this three-month review period."
I have heard from some on the inside that Obama hadn't focused so deeply on Afghanistan when he decided in March 2009 to send in 21,000 extra troops. Hastings is also right that Obama was initially surprised to receive the request for another 40,000. However, during the "three-month review period," which climaxed in his approval of 30,000 additional troops and a new counterinsurgency strategy, Obama came to understand fully what he was getting into, its risks, and its opportunity. It's absurd to suggest that McChrystal or anybody else maneuvered him onto the road he wound up taking.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Gen. Stanley McChrystal by Alex Wong/Getty Images.