The firestorm created by Gen. Stanley McChrystal's comments from a yet to be published article in Rolling Stone magazine crystallizes the current Afghan effort. The Generals in the field are frustrated with the civilian leadership. The civilian leadership is frustrated with the military and the Afghan government. The Afghan people are frustrated with everyone. The American public is barely paying attention to the war because of the problems back home. It would be fair to characterize the AfPak endeavor as ‘Operation Frustration’.
Clearly Gen. McChrystal and others in the military have been irritated and frustrated by the Obama administration for quite some time. The deliberative approach of Mr. Obama was a cause for concern to many. This frustration only builds up when US troops have to deal with extremely restrictive rules of engagement in implementing the Petraeus/McChrystal COIN strategy. Raids and searches have to be conducted in tandem with incompetent Afghan police of dubious loyalties. The highly effective night raids are rare because President Karzai does not approve. Engaging the enemy is only allowed when fired upon first (i.e. after you are shot). All this would cause anyone to be angry, let alone the man in charge of uprooting the Taliban, converting and sustaining the loyalties of the warlords and peasants, and go after Al Qaeda elements. Thus the medium of conveying his annoyance at the civilian leadership is the issue here, not the actual sentiment, which should come as no surprise to anyone.
The reason Gen. McChrystal is in serious trouble is because his aides made a series of irresponsible comments about the civilian leadership that put them in charge of AfPak. What is even more concerning is who these comments were made to. Now, no matter the degree of dissatisfaction with Mr. Obama and his policies, talking to reporters behind the President's back is simply unacceptable. If the urge to voice your frustrations to a reporter becomes necessary then Gen. McChrystal and his aides should at least have the smarts to talk to a Bob Woodward or a Richard Engel. They would have used this information mainly to paint a picture and kept the inflammatory quotes (especially names) out of it. Talking to an unheard of, freelance reporter out to establish himself is exactly the last thing someone in McChrystal's position should do. (This is not a knock on the reporter; who appears to be adept at extracting information over drinks).
It remains to be seen what comes out of the meeting between the administration and Gen. McChrystal. It would be a very bad idea to fire him right now because of the immense hardship facing US troops in Afghanistan. It would be safe to say that most soldiers on the ground share at least a part of their commander's frustration toward some civilian operatives. The one thing that has to be done is reconsider the role of the envoy Richard Holbrook and ambassador Eikenberry. They are actually proving to be a problem for the military rather than productive liaisons that they were supposed to be. An important decision for Mr. Obama is to figure out a way to separate Mr. Eikenberry and the military leadership on the ground. It is clear that the relationship between those two mirrors the relationship between Mr. Karzai and the US administration. They work together only because they have to and neither seems to trust the other. This is not a constructive dynamic to have and it certainly cannot be sustained. Mr. Eikenberry was on the losing side of the argument during last year's extensive discussion on the path forward in Afghanistan. He has made no secret of his distrust of Mr. Karzai and now it seems he is also continuously at odds with Gen. McChrystal. The troop level argument has been settled (at least for the time being) and it makes no sense to put opposing sides under one tent on the ground to figure out ways to actually make progress in Afghanistan. Simply put, Eikenberry and Holbrook are replaceable. Gen. Stanley McChrystal is not, at least not in the short term.
This is a problem Mr. Obama did not need and did not create. An argument can be made that he has caused it gradually through his governing style. Having said that, this event would have been more understandable if it had happened last year when the AfPak strategy was being discussed in slow motion. Gen. McChrystal's aides have made a dangerous and foolish mistake by blurting out their frustrations to Rolling Stone. This will be a huge test for Mr. Obama and his much touted skills to compromise and reconcile differing views. The knee jerk left is already calling for the general's resignation. What they fail to understand is that this is not an academic concept or a preventive measure like wire taps where disagreement among leadership is expected and accepted. Afghanistan is a real war with a real enemy waiting to pounce on every perceived weakness; and there is no bigger weakness than a fractured leadership. One hopes that the President will swallow his ego, keep McChrystal in-charge and reiterate his commitment to the flailing Afghan war effort. Most importantly, Mr. Obama needs to prioritize the Afghan war and figure out how to solve what seem to be irreconcilable disagreements between the military and the White House. Gen. McChrystal's aides on the other hand, need to learn the art of shutting up.