If Stan McChrystal has to go—and he probably does—it will be a sad end to a career of great distinction and a low moment in a lifetime devoted to duty, honor, and country. But the good of the mission and the prospects for victory in Afghanistan may well now demand a new commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
While there are obvious issues of civil-military relations exposed by the general’s cringe-inducing quotes in the “Runaway General” article in Rolling Stone—and while his staff appear to be off the leash entirely, a command climate for which McChrystal is responsible—the original source of the problem is above the general’s pay grade.
So McChrystal should not be the only one to go. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and “AfPak” czar Richard Holbrooke should likewise either submit their resignations or be fired by President Obama. Vice President Biden and his surrogates should be told to sit down and be quiet, to stop fighting policy battles in the press. The administration's "team of rivals" approach is producing only rivalry.
Most of all, the commander-in-chief must take command. Barack Obama’s commitment is famously and publicly uncertain. No one—not his lieutenants, nor his cabinet, nor his generals, nor the American people, nor our allies, nor the Afghans, nor our enemies—can be sure whether the president wants to win the war or just to end the war.
The McChrystal contretemps creates an opportunity to right many of these wrongs; the White House should not waste this crisis. Anything less than a clean sweep will leave the war effort impaired.
The imposition of a troop-withdrawal deadline, in particular, has poisoned our Afghanistan strategy. McChrystal has, understandably, behaved like a man under pressure to produce quick results to get good marks in the administration’s December Afghanistan strategy review. Even the timetable for the review is premature and therefore transparently artificial: the last “surge” brigade won’t be deployed until November.
The shortage of time is also compounded by the shortage of forces. McChrystal’s cardinal achievement to date has been the re-wiring of the dysfunctional ISAF structure, but it’s also required him to deploy forces in places such as Kunduz, north of Kabul but still a Pashtun area where the Taliban have been more active, because the German forces there are insufficient.
If the United States fails in Afghanistan, it won’t be because Gen. McChrystal or his staff were indiscreet or insubordinate (which, strictly speaking, they were not). Indeed, if the war can’t be quickly won in Afghanistan, it won’t be quickly lost there, either. And in fact it can be won, though it will take some time. The war can, however, be lost rapidly in Washington.
William Kristol is editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD. Thomas Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.