General Stanley McChrystal may not be the only member of the Obama Afghanistan team who loses his job because of Rolling Stone. Michael Hastings’ now famous profile in the magazine revealed what many in Washington already knew: that the men making Afghan policy spend almost as much time trying to destroy each another as they do trying to destroy the Taliban. The result: a new White House mania for unity. It’s not just that McChrystal is out and Petraeus is in; top Obama officials are determined that now that Petraeus is in charge, everyone else involved in the Afghanistan mission fall in line. In this regard, White House officials are reportedly considering dumping U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, a man who publicly dissented from the counterinsurgency strategy that McChrystal and Petraeus championed. In other words, a walking symbol of disunity.
When you think about it, it’s completely nuts. The main point of Hastings’ article—for those who bothered to read it—is that our Afghanistan policy is a stinking mess. The media focused on the fact that Hastings caught some of McChrystal’s underlings mouthing off about their civilian superiors. But the real news is what they said about the war itself. Hamid Karzai, the man supposedly leading the anti-Taliban effort, has “been locked up in his palace the past year,” according to one McChrystal aide. Hastings notes that when the Afghan leader accompanied McChrystal to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and met three U.S. soldiers who had been wounded in Uruzgan province, he exclaimed that “I didn't even know we were fighting in Uruzgan!” As one senior McChrystal adviser tells Hastings, “If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular.”
Someone needs to tell the White House that unity is not always a good thing. Sure, if you’re pursuing a sound policy, then it is helpful for everyone to get behind it. But if the policy is fundamentally flawed, disunity is actually healthy.
McChrystal’s own aides, in other words, are vindicating Karl Eikenberry. Last November, when the administration was debating the Afghan surge, Eikenberry penned a memo to his bosses back home. “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner,” he insisted. The Afghan leader “continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development.” When that memo leaked to The New York Times, McChrystal was enraged, and Eikenberry developed a reputation as someone who did not play well with others. Now, because Hastings’ story has made the White House desperate for people who play well with others, Eikenberry may lose his job, even though the story itself is filled with quotes from McChrystal’s own staff confirming Eikenberry’s prescience.
Someone needs to tell the White House that unity is not always a good thing. Sure, if you’re pursuing a sound policy, then it is helpful for everyone to get behind it. But if the policy is fundamentally flawed, disunity is actually healthy. It means that there are people in influential positions capable of seeing those flaws, and letting others know about them. In Vietnam, for instance, there was too much unity at high levels, and as a result, it was hard to bring the bad news filtering up from the field to the attention of the people that mattered. Stamping out disunity when a policy isn’t working is like stamping out chest pain in a patient on the verge of a heart attack—you’re not solving the problem, you’re only squelching the symptoms that alert you to the problem.
Petraeus is an immensely capable man, and it’s not hard to see why the administration saw him as the answer to the problem it faced last week: how to dump McChrystal, and thus uphold civilian control of the military, without throwing its Afghan policy into turmoil. The problem, as Hastings revealed, is that the policy was already in turmoil. It was in turmoil because to succeed, a counterinsurgency strategy must enjoy buy-in from the local government, sustained public support back home, and a blank check financially. In Afghanistan, that first requirement is clearly lacking, the second is going fast, and the third has been rejected by the president himself, who has declared that he’s determined to ensure that the Afghan war doesn’t cost too much.
Given these grim realities, the Obama administration needs people with enough skepticism about the counterinsurgency effort to speak honestly about its failings to their superiors in Washington. Next year’s deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops is already shaping up as a massive battle between the folks at the Pentagon who want to fight in Afghanistan for as long as it takes, and their ostensible superiors, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, who reportedly want the deadline to mean something. In that bureaucratic battle, a figure like Eikenberry, who is both on the ground and has a military background, could be vital in rebutting the overly rosy assessments likely to come from Petraeus and his allies. But the way things look right now, he’ll likely be replaced by someone whose prime qualification is that he won’t rub Petraeus the wrong way. And so, newly unified, the Obama Afghanistan team will plunge deeper into an unwinnable war.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.