Why President Obama should keep Gen. McChrystal

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

AS HE HAS acknowledged, Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal exercised poor judgment in making disparaging remarks about several Obama administration officials to a reporter from Rolling Stone and in allowing members of his staff to make still more. It's not clear that the general is guilty of insubordination; negative comments about the president and vice president in the article are attributed to unnamed members of his staff. But few in Washington would fault President Obama if he dismissed Gen. McChrystal or accepted his resignation.

The question is whether Mr. Obama would be wise to do so. We think he would not be, for three reasons.

First, Gen. McChrystal is the architect of a crucial counterinsurgency campaign underway in southern Afghanistan -- a strategy Mr. Obama approved after months of deliberation last year. The offensive has produced mixed results so far, though senior Pentagon officials testified to Congress last week that its overall trajectory is positive. To remove its commanding general at this moment would risk its delay or derailment. Mr. Obama can hardly afford either, in part because of the July 2011 deadline he has established for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Second, whatever his reputation in Washington, Gen. McChrystal has built strong ties with the Afghan and Pakistani officials whose cooperation is vital to the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose relationship with the Obama administration has been rocky, issued a statement of support Tuesday for Gen. McChrystal, calling him "the best commander" of the war. A Pakistani government official told The Post that the removal of Gen. McChrystal would deepen skepticism in Islamabad about the chances for a U.S. victory.

Most important, the inflammatory comments in the Rolling Stone article are symptomatic of a deeper dysfunction for which Gen. McChrystal is not chiefly responsible. As we pointed out on this page last week, the administration's performance in Afghanistan has been hamstrung by continuing differences between civilian officials and military commanders that date to the debate over strategy last year. One of the two civilian officials Gen. McChrystal is quoted as disparaging, Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, opposed the counterinsurgency plan and has repeatedly clashed with Gen. McChrystal over tactics. A memo by Mr. Eikenberry critiquing Mr. Karzai was leaked to the press.

Vice President Biden, another opponent of Gen. McChrystal's plan, gave an interview to Newsweek's Jonathan Alter in which he predicted that "in July of 2011, you are going to see a whole lot of [troops] moving out." Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates responded in a television interview Sunday, "That absolutely has not been decided."

Mr. Obama has tolerated this feuding, with consequences that include poor coordination of military and civilian operations and deteriorating relations with Mr. Karzai. His dismissal of Gen. McChrystal would hand a victory to those in his administration who have resisted the counterinsurgency operations.

The president needs to make clear whether he is still committed to the strategy he announced in December. If he is, he should insist that his administration support his decision -- and he should fashion a civil-military team in Afghanistan whose members are able to work effectively with each other and with the local government.

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