The decision on Gen. McChrystal’s fate, the president said last night, will be ”determined entirely on how I can make sure that we have a strategy that justifies the enormous courage and sacrifice that those men and women are making over there, and that ultimately makes this country safer.” That, however, begs the question: stay with the existing strategy (clear, hold, build, transfer; train; persuade Karzai to govern; partner with Karzai to negotiate; encourage Pakistani military effort in Waziristan; drone-strike) or change course? My Washington Independent piece this morning is about the likely continuity of strategy in Afghanistan, no matter who’s ultimately in command of the war effort.
What remains unclear from any Kandahar planning is the effect even a successful operation will have on the overall strength of al-Qaeda’s allies in Afghanistan — and al-Qaeda itself, across the border in Pakistan. “There was good reason to drive al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but there’s no good reason to stay in the place,” said Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel and a skeptic of counterinsurgency. “I don’t see any evidence [Obama's] suddenly going to summon the wherewithal to change course, but frankly this is an opportunity for him to do precisely that.”
If Robert Gibbs’ press briefing Tuesday was any indication, Macgregor has a point about Obama’s wherewithal. Gibbs, the White House press secretary, couched his and the president’s disapproval of McChrystal’s comments by questioning whether McChrystal was committed to implementing Obama’s strategy. “We’re here to implement a new strategy,” Gibbs said in his Tuesday briefing, and “that’s what we want everybody from the ambassador to the combatant commander to anybody else involved with this to focus on.” Gibbs emphasized that the mission in Afghanistan “is bigger than anybody on the military or the civilian side” — signaling that no officer is irreplaceable…
I would suggest that from the start of #McClusterfuck yesterday, most everyone observing — and I definitely include myself here — was too quick to conflate McChrystal’s fate with the fate of Afghanistan strategy. My smart commenters pointed out that any strategy that’s dependent on one commander is hopelessly doomed. So while there’s going to be turbulence for implementing strategy in any command change, a command change doesn’t have to augur a strategy change. (Though we may still be doomed. One of the things that surprised me the most about Hastings’ piece is that he was surprised McChrystal’s people aren’t sure they can pull it off in Afghanistan. But advocates for the strategy recognize how late the hour is and that it’s not the best strategy in Afghanistan, only the least-worst.) And it doesn’t look like one’s on the horizon.
That’s why I was surprised to read this from Galrahn, who wants Gen. Mattis to take over:
The way I see it, Obama has several choices. McCrystal either stays or goes. The existing COIN strategy either stays or goes. I personally think the President should allow McCrystal to retire, and a Marine should be put in charge. I also think it is time to draft a strategy to meet the Presidents objectives of defeating al-Qaeda and other extremist groups and denying them sanctuary and give up the central government building exercise that has been completely ineffective – and indeed perhaps counterproductive.
The Marines left Iraq to go to Afghanistan. They wanted it – I hope the President gives it to them. I strongly believe that President Obama needs to pick one of two men – Lieutenant General John R. Allen or General James Mattis. No more West Point COINdinistas guys – it is time to pick a Marine.
It is time to call in General James Mattis.
So a Marine COINdinista, then? Mattis’s people are certainly not averse to the idea. But it’s hard to envision Mattis executing a radically different strategy. That’s not to say a new commander wouldn’t have room to make significant adjustments — reemphasizing the east? more kinetic operations? — but all the likely candidates to replace McChrystal operate on a spectrum between Significant Adjustment (Adm. Eric Olson) and Few Adjustments (Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez), and Mattis is probably in the center of that spectrum. (And I wonder how likely Olson is to take over.) I’m not the kind of guy who says that details don’t matter, but take this in the spirit of setting expectations for more continuity in strategy after today’s Situation Room meeting than departure.