When President Barack Obama picked Stanley McChrystal to be his general in Afghanistan, I thought he might have picked the right man for the right mission. After all, McChrystal was a highly successful head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), with a strong record of going after jihadist leaders and cadre. And since the one underlying thing we must do in Afghanistan is deny its reprise as a base of operations for Al Qaeda, as it was in the run-up to 9/11, the career-long special operations officer was very well cast.
McChrystal had exactly the right skill set and experiences for that fundamentally counter-terrorist mission.
Instead, Obama had something much more conventional, not to mention massive, in mind. Nation-building, like we tried in Vietnam, cast in the guise of counter-insurgency. McChrystal embraced it. Who knows what he really thought?
The truly fabulous story by Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone -- you can read the article, entitled "The Runaway General," here, by the sometime contributor to the Huffington Post and former foreign correspondent for Newsweek, back when the magazine did reporting -- that brought McChrystal's career tumbling down faster than a snowball in an avalanche doesn't get at that particular point.
In any event, the Army, like every big institution I'm aware of, is also a political institution, with its own longstanding traditions. And big generals become classic generals not by fighting secret wars but by fighting big wars. Afghanistan, with the Obama surge, is now very much a big war.
The reality is that we don't need to do nearly as much as we are doing in Afghanistan in order to succeed in that fundamental mission occasioned by the 9/11 attacks. We don't have to create a nation-state where one has never existed. We don't have to have military control over all of Afghanistan, or even most of it. We don't have to defeat the Taliban.
In other words, Vice President Joe Biden was right.
Remember when Al Qaeda emerged in the public awareness of the 1990s with some spectacular attacks against American targets abroad. Then President Bill Clinton was criticized for his response. Not for his "failure" to invade, capture, and hold Afghanistan. But for using remote control cruise missile strikes against Al Qaeda training camps and bases rather than special operations forces.
Al Qaeda is barely in Afghanistan now. It's principal safe haven is next door, in Pakistan, with cells in various parts of the world. And influence on less capable jihadists of the homegrown variety, including some right here in America.
We already have the assets we need in Afghanistan to prevent its re-emergence as the home of Al Qaeda or other transnational jihadists. Generally speaking, the north is relatively stable and friendly. The south is another matter. But with a stable presence in the north, good intelligence, technology, and special operations forces, Al Qaeda's re-emergence in Afghanistan can be prevented.
This would have been a relatively straightforward mission for the Stanley McChrystal of JSOC fame. Perhaps too straightforward, since a mission is that is mostly accomplished already is not nearly so dramatic as making Afghanistan something it's never been.
Now, some will say that squelching transnational jihadists is not the real mission in Afghanistan. That's it's a pipeline project -- which goes to India, incidentally, and was supported by the Taliban in the past -- or the recently trumpeted presence of vast mineral deposits. I'm not that cynical.
So McChrystal is gone, and General David Petraeus is in.
Which leaves us where?
Well, pretty much where we were a few days ago, minus the sensational alcohol-fueled semi-insubordination of McChrystal's boys club of special ops guys.
Incidentally, they were just being candid and blowing off steam. They're not PR-ready, Washington-experienced officers. Their mistake was being on the record. As a result, their comments could not be ignored, nor could McChrystal's role in not shutting his boys up as soon as they started spouting off. Especially considering that McChrystal had gotten virtually everything he wanted from Obama, for whom McChrystal says he voted.
The Karzai Factor. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Afghan President Hamid Karzai as a key partner in the struggle against jihadism at last month's big Washington summit. The Obama administration has never been happy with Karzai, and some officials, like National Security Advisor James Jones, former commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, have criticized him severely. But for now, in public, they seem to be employing the carrot rather than the stick.
Having sat out the great war against the Soviets, ostensibly as a fundraiser, Karzai carries little personal authority in a land with a very long and strong martial tradition. He hasn't been much more than a glorified mayor of Kabul, which is why the Taliban delight in making high profile strikes well within echoing distance of his presidential palace.
Karzai's thoroughgoing ineffectiveness wouldn't really matter if the U.S. were pursuing a counter-terrorist mission in Afghanistan to prevent it from again becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda rather than the nation-building exercise that is underway, at least for now.
The Escalate to Negotiate Factor. The saving grace about the nation-building exercise that the U.S. has undertaken in Afghanistan is that it's seemingly limited in scope, both by time and aims.
The problem is that we've been escalating for months and the Taliban seem no more willing to negotiate than they did before. Perhaps because they expect to win.
The Marja Factor. The big U.S. Marine-led offensive four months ago in the Taliban stronghold of Marja was a military success. At first. It took a little longer than expected, but the Taliban were driven from the city and its environs. Or were they? And a turnkey civil administration was brought in to show that the non-Taliban Afghan government could be effective. But has it been?
It turns out that the Taliban are back. In fact, many of them never actually left, having simply melted back into the civilian population. Marine patrols in Marja regularly engage in firefights. And civil action projects are far behind schedule.
** The Kandahar Factor. After the victory in Marja, next up on the schedule for a major offensive is Kandahar Province, the heartland of the Taliban since the religious students movement sprung up, with lots of assistance from the Pakistani ISI intelligence service, in the post-Soviet chaos of the mid-1990s.
The Kandahar offensive was been telegraphed for months, giving the Taliban plenty of time to formulate their plans. Which included the assassination of civilian figures needed to make the plan work.
The offensive was supposed to kick off at the beginning of June. But McChrystal delayed it till the Fall, saying it will play out over time, perhaps till the end of the year. So much for that.
The Petraeus Factor. With McChrystal out, Obama improvised and named General David Petraeus, the head of Central Command, to run the war in Afghanistan. Which raises some questions. As CentCom chief, Petraeus is already in charge of the theater which includes Afghanistan. General Stanley McChrystal worked under him. CentCom is run out of Tampa, Florida. Thus he'll technically be taking a demotion, going back to the status he had when he ran the war in Iraq prior to taking over CentCom. He'll also be moving to Kabul. If so, who will replace him at the helm of Central Command? And does his fainting episode last week while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee concern anyone?
It's a politically deft move for Obama. But Obama also announced that the policy remains the same. And in Petraeus, acclaimed as the hero of the Iraq surge, it has a better, more PR-savvy salesman than the blunt "snake eater" Stan McChrystal.
Which may well make Obama even more dependent upon Petraeus -- President Bush's favorite general -- than before.
The Volcano Factor. So all the factors remain the same as they were a month ago, with Petraeus simply morphing into a new camera-ready role. What changed the faces at the top? That Icelandic volcano.
NBC reached Michael Hastings, the author of the Rolling Stone profile on General Stanley McChrystal. When he was reached on Tuesday he was only just beginning to appreciate his article's impact.
Hastings says he stumbled onto unprecedented access with McChrystal. After McChrystal's press advisers accepted a request for the profile, Hastings joined McChrystal and his team in Paris. It was supposed to be a two-day visit, followed up with more time in Afghanistan.
The volcano in Iceland, however, changed those plans. As the ash disrupted air travel, Hastings ended up being "stuck" with McChrystal and his team for 10 days in Paris and Berlin. McChrystal had to get to Berlin by bus. Hastings says McChrystal and his aides were drinking on the road trip "the whole way."
"They let loose," he said. "I don't blame them; they have a hard job." Hastings then traveled with McChrystal in Afghanistan for more time. What was supposed to be a two-day visit, turned into a month, in part due to disruptions of the volcano.
Hastings says McChrystal was very "candid" with him and knew their conversations were for reporting purposes. "Most of the time I had a tape recorder in his face or a notebook in my hand," he said.
Hastings says most of the critical comments, which are now causing a stir, were said in the first 24 hours or so. "It wasn't a case of charming him into anything," Hastings said.
Volcanic ash, booze, and non-press ready special operators, that's the cocktail, as it were, for a kick-ass article. And big drama, if not big change.