Afghanistan: Winners and Losers

Obama's removal of McChrystal from Afghanistan command has consequences for others on America's Afghanistan team. Leslie H. Gelb scores the winners and losers.

Obama’s removal of McChrystal from Afghanistan command has consequences for others on America’s Afghanistan team. Leslie H. Gelb scores the winners and losers. Plus: Louise Roug on the splinters in the Afghanistan team.

With General Stanley McChrystal removed from command in Afghanistan and General David Petraeus named to succeed him, the stunning story is disappearing from front pages—even as its most telling implications begin to seep through the cracks. I speak here of the winners and losers, and what their fate will mean for America’s fate in Afghanistan.

Biggest Loser: Of course, McChrystal. Son of a general, married to the daughter of a general, himself one of the nation’s most honored warriors, his illustrious career is over. He was a very good commander, struggling to balance his soldiers’ safety with the protection of Afghan civilians and struggling to show quick results in a war that defies quick wins, if not victory itself. McChrystal will not find happiness in a think tank. He won’t run for political office. As is apparent, he is not a politician. He’ll be appointed to business boards, but he won’t enjoy it. He is the ultimate warrior with no more wars to fight. He knows he has no one to blame but himself. Now, we can only salute him for his sterling service.

McChrystal will not find happiness in a think tank. He won’t run for political office. As is apparent, he is not a politician.

Second Biggest Loser: Vice President Joe Biden. Alas, one can see that he is not held in high esteem by the military. Biden, “bite me,” indeed. The remark by one of McChrystal’s colonels was cutting, stupid, and unfair. But it does reflect the perceptions of the colonels and generals, not really about the man himself, but about his policy views. He has argued against the present counterinsurgency strategy—establishing security with U.S. arms, training Afghan forces, and building the Afghan nation up from scratch. He thinks this is unrealistic, and he’s right—or at least right that it will take another decade or more, if it’s possible at all. Instead, he argues for a counter-terrorism approach—leaving aside the clear, hold, build, and just going directly after al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. The military thinks this is unrealistic, like trying to punch the wind. And so, they began trashing the Vice President whose thinking is actually far more sophisticated than portrayed. In any event, the military hit him, and no one in the White House bothered to defend him.

Louise Roug: Afghanistan Team SplintersNeither Winners Nor Losers Yet: Special Representative Richard Holbrooke and Ambassador in Kabul Karl Eikenberry. Holbrooke likely will be fine. He has a good relationship with Petraeus, which will be key. But just as important, he’ll be needed when and if the White House decides to explore serious negotiations with the Taliban. Eikenberry, on the other hand, could be in trouble. He committed the ultimate sin in personal relations: He sent his analysis and recommendations about the war (which happened to be extremely negative and contrary to McChrystal’s) to Washington without even telling his old friend McChrystal that he had done so. That experience is certain to be in Petraeus’ mind. And by the way, General James Jones, the National Security Adviser, didn’t emerge from the story well, either. McChrystal’s guys called him “a clown.” He’s not, but his comrades in the administration don’t give him high marks either.

Biggest Winner: General David Petraeus. His already cosmic reputation soars. Whatever future he desires will be enhanced—so long as he doesn’t fail in Afghanistan. This brilliant soldier and strategic planner whose mind is often hard to read will be calling the policy shots in this already 10-year-old war. He is the real author of the current counterinsurgency strategy. More and more, he’ll have ownership of the war. Some have argued that he took this job and this big chance to advance his ambition to run for president. I don’t know anyone who knows the general well, a man of great reserve and privacy, who believes he would put himself in such a public position. He might allow himself to be chosen as a vice presidential running mate, but he’s not going to be out front, begging and running for president. In any event, taking command in Afghanistan is a real career risk.

Biggest Winner/Loser: President Barack Obama. Appointing Petraeus was a brilliant political move in the short run, but in the long run, he mortgaged his Afghan policy to Petraeus. Anyone who might have been tempted to criticize Mr. Obama for dismissing McChrystal was stifled by Petraeus’ towering reputation. And from now on, the general will virtually own the president. Mr. Obama can’t fire him, his third commander in Afghanistan in two years and the hero of Iraq. What that means is whatever serious U.S. troop withdrawal plan the president may have had to begin in July 2011, Petraeus will make reductions slower and smaller. And the president won’t be in a position to say no. Perhaps, however, Mr. Obama never really intended big withdrawals in July 2011. Perhaps his main aim was to get through the next presidential election without fear of “losing” in Afghanistan. If that’s really Mr. Obama’s deal, then he may end up a winner on that count as well. If, however, the U.S. maintains heavy involvement in the war for several more years; if the Afghan government remains corrupt and its army and police ineffective; if the present stalemate continues or deteriorates; if thousands of more lives are lost and hundreds of billions more spent, then Americans will be the biggest losers.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.