Battle on the third front
Q: In confronting the issue of Gen. McChrystal's apparent insubordination, did President Obama have any choice but to remove him? Going forward, what can Gen. Petraeus do to overcome this dramatic shakeup and keep his troops reassured and on mission?
There is no doubt that President Obama made the right decision in relieving General McChrystal of his command. Otherwise he would have opened two new fronts in the battlefield of Afghanistan, one in Washington and one with our Allies.
Our wartime commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan must have the capability and savvy to fight wars on multiple fronts. The first battle is against the enemy to eliminate their power bases and sources of support. Second is with the host nation authorities to eliminate corruption and take over governance. In both Iraq and Afghanistan there is a third front - Washington and interagency politics. A battle that General Petraeus mastered for Iraq, but one which General McChrystal failed to fully understand. Afghanistan actually has a fourth battlefront in dealing with our Allied troops, and the complications with differing rules of engagement and their own countries' politics.
Initially, when General McChrystal was named, there was broad support behind him in Washington and with our allies. Which left him the two-front war against the Taliban and against government corruption.
While allowing the Rolling Stone article was clearly poor judgment, the greatest risk and reason to relieve General McChrystal was the risk of opening up new battles with Washington and our Allies. By appointing General Petraeus, President Obama immediately calms those battles given Petraeus' enormous support within US and foreign political and military circles.
That said, the President's work in defusing this difficult situation is by no means over. He's picked the right man to take over the job. But in order for General Petraeus to best leverage his considerable talents and expertise, President Obama must create a political and operational environment suitable for success.
If it is true that Ambassador Eikenberry was sending back-channel messages to the State Department that contradicted those he was sending directly to General McChrystal, then President Obama might be wise to let him go as well. Doing so would communicate the urgent need for the Administration to speak with a unified, consistent voice to those carrying out the mission and reassert the importance of the key players remaining on the same page.
That's not to say that there should always be total agreement among the policy maker's advising on the President's war strategy - but where there are disagreements, the President needs to provide the style of leadership that brings them to a swift conclusion - before they confuse the mission or leave his commanders unsure of their roles or the goals they've been directed to achieve.
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