Has Obama misplaced his priorities in relieving General McChrystal?

Change: the concept by which Barack Obama has chosen to define his presidency. We have certainly seen evidence of this in the past week in the shape of his replacement of General McChrystal with General Petraeus as the American commander in Afghanistan. However, he has been keen to emphasise that in this case he has limited his action, with the move constituting a “change in personnel but…not a change in policy.”

This statement has been liberally quoted by the press, but does it necessarily convey the appropriate message?  The obvious implication is that the policy is sound, but that General McChrystal is no longer the right man to implement it. Is this really the case, or is the actual problem more fundamental than the President is willing to admit? Does the real rationale behind this action have more to do with domestic politics than the war effort?

In order to establish whether the policy needs to be reassessed, let us consider some of its features. The Western forces are seeking to establish a model of governance based upon the US system, which has been criticised as oppressively centralised, and as responsible for the marginalisation of many sections of Afghan civil society. One need only look to the debacle that was the 2009 presidential election, characterised by electoral fraud and poor security, to know that this is not working for Afghanistan. Perhaps Obama should not have been so hasty in dismissing the need to re-evaluate policy. Institutional reform, at least, should assume a prominent position in the list of strategic priorities.

General McChrystal recognised that this could not realistically be achieved through military force alone, and highlighted the need for interaction and negotiation with the civilian population. His strategy highlighted the importance of boosting morale within the country, and ‘winning over’ the Afghan civilians in order to secure lasting change. He has demonstrated his practical commitment to this approach by actively working to reduce the number of civilian casualties. This earned him the crucial trust of the Afghan authorities. Co-operation will undoubtedly be necessary if the Taliban are to be suppressed. In that respect, the continued promotion of this policy seems desirable.

If one pays regard to the more cynical analyses of this change, it appears that the best interests of both the military and the Afghan civilians have occasionally strayed from the forefront of the President’s mind. A principal criticism directed at the Obama administration is that it has been characterised by indecision. Barack Obama’s expeditious handling of this incident presented the perfect opportunity for him to demonstrate his capacity for decisive action. Needless to say, this is not a condemnable end in itself, although if this was the President’s motivation then it is in questionable taste.

Obama claims that this is not a matter of his having suffered a personal offence, although his private outrage at the remarks has been noted. Of course the remarks were personally insulting, and he would have felt disrespected. It would, however, have conveyed unpalatably totalitarian overtones if Obama were seen to have relieved the General on this basis.

Far more sinister are the allegations that this move was politically motivated in the light of General Petraeus’ potential candidacy in 2012. However this claim does seem rather far-fetched and unsympathetic.

As Obama presents the situation, it would appear that the bottom line is that division must be eradicated. This is perfectly commendable, given the magnitude of the task facing the troops in Afghanistan. The President has also presented the General’s lack of judgement as his fatal flaw. It is no secret that morale, both in Afghanistan and in the West, has been low for some time: a particularly acute issue during the worst month in terms of casualties in the whole of the nine-year war. Obama’s concern to improve confidence in the war effort has been demonstrated by this controversial move.

Ostensibly this is his primary motivation, although it is clear that other considerations may actually have prevailed. His desire to appear to be a strong and decisive leader seems to have superseded his specific concern for the situation an Afghanistan, and for the coalition forces.

However, we know that this news has not been well received in Afghanistan. General McChrystal had established a solid and amicable relationship with the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, who has expressed regret at the General’s demise. He is, however, open to the idea of working collaboratively with General Petraeus, who has achieved respect in Afghanistan through his much-lauded success in Iraq. This appears to be the crux of the issue – General McChrystal’s ideas are sound, but the infrastructure is not. If General Petraeus can expand on the excellent work which General McChrystal began, then it is right that this particular policy should remain in force. Though that is not to say that it could not benefit from reappraisal, which is certainly necessary in the broader context of governance reform.

In his consistent endeavours to be all things to all men, Obama risks overlooking the overarching issues and occasionally missing the mark. It remains to be seen what the impact of this ‘change in personnel’ will be; and whether, contrary to the President’s outward confidence, strategic reform will be forthcoming under Petraeus’ command. General Petraeus’ involvement in the formulation of the contemporary policy suggests that this is indeed rather unlikely.

Nonetheless, if the Vanity Fair letters page is to be trusted, I gather that Petraeus is ‘adorable’. Let’s hope the Afghans agree.

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