As President Obama weighs whether to relieve his Afghanistan commander over inappropriate comments in a magazine article, he is also wrestling with the future of a war that he has taken on as his own.
If he fires Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, Obama will be forced to consider revising his strategy, which relies on large numbers of U.S. troops and a far-reaching counterinsurgency effort to promote governance and development in Afghanistan.
The White House now has to decide whether stability at the top of the war effort outweighs the need to discipline a commander who twice has seemed to publicly challenge civilian oversight of the war.
Although some of Obama’s closest advisors have warned that McChrystal’s approach risked getting the U.S. bogged down in an unwinnable war, the president has shown no interest in revisiting the course he set last December.
With the oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, continuing economic woes and congressional midterm elections looming in the fall, Obama is unlikely to want to take on reassessment of the war strategy so soon after choosing this course.
For that reason alone, McChrystal, the chief advocate of the administration strategy, may survive, despite the ignominy of being summoned to Washington for his comments to Rolling Stone magazine.
Firing McChrystal would also probably ignite fierce debate in Congress, with some Republicans charging that Obama had sacrificed an effective wartime commander because of comments that, while intemperate, did not challenge the course set by civilians. Opponents in Congress of the current strategy would probably respond by pressing even harder for a shift in strategy.
In December, Obama essentially sided with McChrystal, who recommended a troop buildup and a dedicated counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. And he rebuffed, at least for the moment, Vice President Joe Biden and other advisors, who expressed skepticism about the strategy.
Obama set a July 2011 deadline for beginning a troop drawdown in Afghanistan and promised to review the strategy in December — in effect giving McChrystal a year to show results.
McChrystal’s approach already has been under fire, because stabilization efforts have proved less successful than expected in Helmand province and the general has extended an operation around the city of Kandahar because of delays in getting Afghan support.
Officials who back the current strategy say that firing McChrystal would set back that effort even further.
McChrystal “is so connected with this strategy that if he is diminished, if he is damaged, we run the risk of doing those things to the strategy as well,” said a senior administration official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions about the general’s future.
But firing McChrystal would have its own chain of consequences.
“Let’s be clear: This is a firing offense,” said Andrew Exum, a counterinsurgency expert at the Center for a New American Security. “But if you replace him, then you have to decide on a replacement, and that brings its own complications.”
The most logical successor would be Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who is already in Afghanistan serving as McChrystal’s deputy. Replacing McChrystal with Rodriguez would signal continuity, rather than a shift in approach. Another name being mentioned as a possible successor was Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va. He has command combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Even if he remains the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, McChrystal is almost certain to emerge from the furor as a damaged figure, less able to defend his war strategy against those in the administration hoping to change it.
“I strongly believe McChrystal will return, but the damage is done,” said a senior military official sympathetic to McChrystal.
Among the issues Obama will have to decide is whether McChrystal can remain effective as commander in the wake of the furor. “Does he come back weakened or gun shy or hesitant to make that case?” asked one senior official. “We need him engaged.”