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Beyond the McChrystal, Petraeus drama: a counterinsurgency reality check

Given all the hurdles to a successful counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, it is not too early for Petraeus and Washington to begin thinking about Plan B.

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The drama surrounding the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal is understandably centered on the juicy clash of personalities: The elite, handpicked commander undone by careless comments to a freelance journalist working for Rolling Stone; the president forced to reassert his authority as commander in chief while prosecuting a difficult war amid flagging public support and a host of domestic crises; the newly installed general, renowned for his past exploits, sent into the fire once again to turn around a troubled campaign.

However, focusing on the personalities obscures the risks that continue to face US strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the need to consider alternative strategies that mitigate them.

President Obama made a point of stating that General McChrystal’s departure is not linked to any change of heart concerning the direction of the Afghan campaign. “I do not make this decision based on any difference in policy with General McChrystal, as we are in full agreement about our strategy,” he said. “Let me say to the American people, this is a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy.”

And by nominating Gen. David Petraeus to continue counterinsurgency command, the president confirmed his support for the current military strategy. It’s a strategy that, even under the most optimistic scenarios, could prove costly in money and manpower and slow to demonstrate significant results.

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