New General, Same Problem for Obama in Afghanistan

At the White House, President Barack Obama announces Gen. David Petraeus as the new commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Charles Dharapak / AP

Barack Obama, as candidate and president, in effect created the IED known as Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Now that improvised explosive device has blown up in the midst of the Obama presidency. The damage is severe, if not crippling.

By relieving McChrystal of command and replacing him with Gen. David Petraeus, the president sought to shield himself from the blast. "This is a change in personnel, but it's not a change in policy," he said from the Rose Garden on Wednesday.

But by focusing his military answer to Islamist extremism on the ungovernable and impenetrable mountains of Afghanistan, Obama made the rise of a man like McChrystal not only possible, but inevitable.

An impossible-to-govern country, infested for millennia with hard-eyed tribal warriors, gave rise to an impossible-to-govern American general surrounded by an inner circle of hard-eyed tribal warriors.

To paraphrase screenwriter David Mamet, in McChrystal, in Afghanistan, we became what we beheld.

The war in Afghanistan, now the longest in the nation's history, has cost 1,000 American lives and soon will have cost $1 trillion. And yet we have not defeated, let alone eradicated, the militant Islamist Taliban, which harbored and encouraged the terrorists who attacked on September 11, 2001.

In the meantime, voters have turned against the war. In the first months of his presidency, Obama's policy of focusing militarily on Afghanistan had wide support. By a 56–41 percent margin, Americans said that the war there was worth fighting.

Now that sentiment is reversed in the latest sample of the same Washington Post poll: by a 53–44 percent margin, voters say the war is not worth fighting.

As a candidate for president, Obama declared that the war in Iraq was a catastrophic and unnecessary "war of choice," but that Afghanistan was the real, indispensable, and pivotal "war of necessity."

He evidently believed this—even though he had never been to Afghanistan, knew little about military history, and knew little about the region aside from a college-year trip through Pakistan in 1981 and a quick trip as a junior senator to Iraq in 2006.

But candidate Obama also had a political motive: to outflank the hawkish Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, and to prove to the rest of the country that he yearned to defeat Muslim extremists and that he was applying his considerable intellect to the role of commander in chief.

As president, Obama had to make good on his promise. And, fatefully, he chose McChrystal's "counterinsurgency" theory of how to eradicate the Taliban. It stresses combining overwhelming on-the-ground force with an amped-up effort to win hearts and minds—and gives the Pentagon the main role in military, diplomatic, and political matters.

In essence, by choosing McChrystal's way, the president was giving even more power to a Pentagon that this year is expected to have at least a $700 billion budget—more than 10 times that of the State Department.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gone along with the project, but Vice President Joe Biden—who might have been secretary of state had the cards fallen in a slightly different way—has not. Divisions within the administration grow by the day.

And Obama also is presiding over an unpopular war and a fractured administration at a critical time on the real battlefield. The long-planned and oft-delayed siege of Kandahar was supposed to start soon—with McChrystal in charge—but has been delayed. It has been touted as the pivotal battle in a pivotal war.

But at the same time, the president remains publicly committed to beginning the withdrawal of the 94,000 American troops in Afghanistan by July 2011.

Who can win in Kandahar so that we can begin to leave, and America will be rid of the Taliban and its allies?

That is—or was supposed to be—Gen. Stanley McChrystal.