President Obama named Gen. David Petraeus as top commander in Afghanistan on Wednesday after he relieved Gen. Stanley McChrystal for disparaging comments McChrystal and his staff had made about senior administration officials in a magazine article.
Petraeus, currently McChrystal’s boss as head of Central Command, needs to be confirmed by the Senate before he can assume the job. He is widely credited with turning the tide of the war in Iraq with a counterinsurgency strategy he authored. As Obama’s third top commander in Afghanistan, he will be expected to repeat his Iraq success.
“Make no mistake,” Obama said. “We have a clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum.”
“This is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy,” Obama said Wednesday in a Rose Garden appearance.
Obama said he accepted McChrystal’s resignation because his conduct “does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general.”
And he’s right. McChrystal showed very bad judgment in granting that interview, letting his staff disparage the civilian leadership, and then doing nothing to repair things when allowed to review it. As Chuck DeVore, himself a retired Lt. Colonel in the US Army Reserve, pointed out, McChrystal was in violation of Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. For the sake of the office of the President and not just for himself, Obama had to accept McChrystal’s resignation.
The choice of General Petraeus to replace him is surprising, but, I think, a very good one. Not only was Petraeus the architect of victory in Iraq, but he has a well-deserved reputation for being able to handle the political and diplomatic challenges his new duties with throw at him, not the least of which being the very touchy Afghan President, Hamid Karzai. In other words, he carries both substantial military and political credibility.
He’ll need every bit of it, too. The current offensive is not going well, the Taliban is building momentum, the Afghan government is unsure they can rely on us, and this brouhaha over McChrystal has to hurt morale in the Afghan theater. While it seems unusual for general to step down from a position with global responsibilities (in Petraeus’ case, head of Central Command) to resume a field command, I believe he is perhaps the only general to possess what the Romans called auctoritas – the needed prestige, clout, and authority to do what needs to be done.
So here are some rare words of praise from me for the President: he did what needed to be done, he didn’t dither, he chose probably the best man to take over, and he recommitted his Administration to the fight. (Unavoidable grumble: I wish he had used the word “victory.”)
Let’s hope that good for us and for Afghanistan comes from this fiasco.