The Rolling Stone profile of Stanley McChrystal looks like a crippling setback for Obama's Afghanistan strategy, if the policy still deserves that term. On the face of it, the general cannot keep his job. McChrystal and his team are openly contemptuous of their political leaders. If this is not rank insubordination, what is?
You have to wonder what they were thinking, letting these comments go on the record. It is not as though they are advancing an alternative policy. McChrystal mostly got his way on that, though the deadline Obama has imposed obviously chafes.
One wants to put it all down to McChrystal's innocence when it comes to dealing with the press. Bitter venting about the clowns in head office is routine in the best-run organizations. One wants to say, this is how people talk about their bosses when they think the conversation is private. But how could McChrystal and his top aides have thought they were talking privately, with reporter and notebook along for the ride? McChrystal is no longer entitled to be innocent. He has been told to watch his mouth already, and he has been warned about testing the limits of the chain of command. He was slapped down over the leaking of his report to the White House last year, predicting failure in Afghanistan unless the US committed extra forces. Now this.
Obama might wish he could overlook it. McChrystal was his choice, part of his seizing ownership of the war. The president was applauded for it. Nobody doubts the general's superlative qualities as a soldier and leader of men. But how can Obama let this go and retain his own authority?
If he sacks him, he removes the officer he has been describing as uniquely qualified to do the job, which sets back the mission and calls the president's own judgment into question. If he leaves him in charge, he looks weak, affirming a gathering line of criticism. That is the dilemma McChrystal has created: in either case, Obama loses. On balance, I think, the best thing would have been for McChrystal to offer his resignation publicly and immediately, and for Obama to refuse it with a final warning to shut up. That opportunity has already slipped by.
Needless to say, the timing is as bad as could be. Even before this, Afghan policy was in worsening disarray. The rate of US casualties is rising. Allies are bailing out. Despite earlier assurances and scaled-up operations, Helmand is not stabilised: Marjah remains a "bleeding ulcer," according to McChrystal's previous assessment. The much-advertised campaign in Kandahar has been delayed. The US says a good local partner is indispensable; it does not have one. Karzai is sending mixed messages (to put it kindly) about détente with the Taliban; he is hinting that the US and its allies are losing; his well-regarded security and interior ministers are gone.
The promised review of policy in December is already looming, to say nothing of the promised start of the drawdown next summer. Things are going badly, and because of the deadline Obama imposed on himself and McChrystal, time is running out. Right now, keeping this strategy on the road until December looks hard enough, let alone through next summer and beyond.