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Personnel as Policy?

3:55 PM, May 11, 2009 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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The Obama administration's decision to replace Gen. David McKiernan as NATO commander in Afghanistan with Gen. Stanley McChrystal is a good thing, but it's much more a question of policy than personnel.

The question is about the Obama administration's basic approach to the war in Afghanistan. McChrystal matters a lot more if it means that the president is getting serious about exerting American leadership and developing a long-term, workable strategy. That's been missing since the Bush administration decided it was happy in 2005 and 2006 to begin passing the Afghanistan baton to NATO. That may have seemed like a reasonable transfer at the time; the Atlantic alliance didn't have much to do and the situation in Kabul was quiet. But the rising levels of violence in Afghanistan and the much larger problems across the border in Pakistan mean that there's a lot more at stake than NATO self-realization; also, after the Russian invasion of Georgia, European security is less certain, too.

McChrystal will have to overcome or escape the NATO trap, engineering a "soft landing" for the alliance, something that McKiernan could not seem to do. One immediate and particular measure of change would be the creation of a three-star operational headquarters to run the war in the Pashtun provinces in the east, south, and west of Afghanistan; that is, create unity of effort and command to win the decisive battles. In this regard, the nomination of Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez to be McChrystal's deputy may have as much or more direct impact on the fight. And ultimately, forging that unity and creating a coherent command structure, while observing European sensibilities and respecting the effort Europeans have made thus far, is a job for President Obama; it's a political more than military decision. It should also mean stationing U.S. forces in the west, supplementing if not replacing the small Spanish and Italian contingents in and around Herat.

The McChrystal decision would be bad, however, if it presaged a dumbing-down of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan to a narrower counter-terrorism approach. The Obama administration did not make that mistake in its recent policy review, but it thought about it. McChrystal has earned a sterling reputation -- but as a leader in the GWOT manhunt, the global war on terrorism. McChrystal was famously congratulated by President Bush for his role in the successful pursuit Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. He's now being asked to run a much larger war.

Like the administration's larger "Af-Pak" policy review, the command change is good as far as it goes. And it raises as many questions as it answers. The move to bring in McChrystal and Rodriguez indicates a new administration urgency in improving the situation in Afghanistan. The danger is that urgency will become impatience. Afghanistan remains a place where we have all the watches but the enemy has all the time.