McChrystal Out, Petraeus In

Obama Petraeus Afghanistan

As expected, President Obama has sacked  Stanley McChrystal, stripping him of the Afghanistan command for insubordination.  Unexpectedly, he replaced him with David Petraeus.

While I’ve been critical of the administration’s handling of Afghanistan — as recently as this morning — this was a brilliant stroke.  And the speech itself struck all the right notes.

I don’t make this decision based on any difference in policy with General McChrystal, as we are in full agreement about our strategy. Nor do I make this decision out of any sense of personal insult. Stan McChrystal has always shown great courtesy and carried out my orders faithfully. I’ve got great admiration for him and for his long record of service in uniform.

Over the last nine years, with America fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has earned a reputation as one of our nation’s finest soldiers. That reputation is founded upon his extraordinary dedication, his deep intelligence and his love of country.

This is not only magnanimous but deflects criticisms that the firing was over personal pique.

The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.

And this, stirring defenses by Telegraph group foreign editor Adrian Michaels and his colleague Gerald Warner notwithstanding, is the bottom line.   Like it or not, Obama and his team are in charge. The uniformed military is there to execute policy, not make it or comment upon it.

I have a responsibility to do whatever is necessary to succeed in Afghanistan and in our broader effort to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaida. I believe that this mission demands unity of effort across our alliance and across my national security team. And I don’t think that we can sustain that unity of effort and achieve our objectives in Afghanistan without making this change.


I’ve just told my national security team that now is the time for all of us to come together. Doing so is not an option but an obligation. I welcome debate among my team, but I won’t tolerate division.

All of us have personal interests. All of us have opinions. Our politics often fuels conflict. But we have to renew our sense of common purpose and meet our responsibilities to one another, and to our troops who are in harm’s way and to our country.


The public squabbling among senior officials through press likes has  created the sense that there is no coherent strategy.  It’s good to see the president acknowledge this.  Dissent and discussion is necessary, but it must take place behind closed doors.  Once a decision is made, not only must the ISAF commander tow the party line but so, too, must the vice president and others on the president’s team.

We need to remember what this is all about. Our nation is at war. We face a very tough fight in Afghanistan. But Americans don’t flinch in the face of difficult truths or difficult tasks. We persist and we persevere. We will not tolerate a safe haven for terrorists who want to destroy Afghan society from within and launch attacks against innocent men, women and children in our country and around the world.

So make no mistake, we have a clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum. We are going to build Afghan capacity. We are going to relentlessly apply pressure on Al Qaida and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same.

That’s the strategy that we agreed to last fall. That is the policy that we are carrying out in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I’m not sure that I believe that the administration is deeply committed to these goals and am even more skeptical that they’re achievable.  But, so long as we’ve got troops in harm’s way, this has to be the message.

In that effort, we are honored to be joined by allies and partners who have stood by us and paid the ultimate price through the loss of their young people at war. They are with us because the interests and values that we share, and because this mission is fundamental to the ability of free people to live in peace and security in the 21st century.

In reality, the war in Afghanistan was Americanized some time ago and continues moving in that direction.  But it’s important to recognize the sacrifices of our allies, whose publics are even more unsure about the war than our own.

General Petraeus and I were able to spend some time this morning discussing the way forward. I’m extraordinarily grateful that he has agreed to serve in this new capacity. It should be clear to everybody he does so at great personal sacrifice to himself and to his family. And he is setting an extraordinary example of service and patriotism by assuming this difficult post.

Let me say to the American people, this is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy. General Petraeus fully participated in our review last fall. And he both supported and helped design the strategy that we have in place.

In his current post at Central Command, he was worked closely with our forces in Afghanistan; he has worked closely with Congress; he has worked closely with the Afghan and Pakistan governments, and with all our partners in the region.

I gather from this that Petraeus will step down from his post at CENTCOM to take over the command at ISAF.  That’s a demotion.  But one that sends a power signal that the Obama administration is fully committed to the mission.  

It was inconceivable this morning that McChrystal’s replacement would be seen as anything other than a setback for the mission.  But with this audacious move, the president actually upped the profile of the Afghanistan commander.  There’s simply no one in the American military who commands greater respect around the world than Petraeus. 

All that being said, some caveats remain.  The Rolling Stone article pointed to some serious disconnect between ISAF and the US Ambassador, Karl Eikenberry.  Was that personal or policy?  If the latter, it needs to be ironed out or Eikenberry replaced.   Additionally, it’s rather clear that there is tremendous dissension in the ranks of American forces in Afghanistan over the counterinsurgency strategy and the attendant rules of engagement.   Petraeus will need to address that issue, pronto.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. Photo: Getty Images.

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