General Stanley McChrystal’s assessment of the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater and request for more troops has not yet received any action from Barack Obama, but according to McClatchy and the Long War Journal, he may not have a lot of time to make a decision. McChystal has grown frustrated with President Obama’s “deliberative pace,” and may resign if Obama chooses not to act on his request. The commander of the Af-Pak theater followed Obama’s strategic decisions from the spring to their natural conclusion, and may not remain if Obama reverses course now:
Within 24 hours of the leak of the Afghanistan assessment to The Washington Post, General Stanley McChrystal’s team fired its second shot across the bow of the Obama administration. According to McClatchy, military officers close to General McChrystal said he is prepared to resign if he isn’t given sufficient resources (read “troops”) to implement a change of direction in Afghanistan …
Today, the military is perceiving that the administration is punting the question of a troop increase in Afghanistan, and the military is even questioning the administration’s commitment to succeed in Afghanistan. The leaking of the assessment and the report that McChrystal would resign if he is not given what is needed to succeed constitute some very public pushback against the administration’s waffling on Afghanistan.
The Washington Post reports that McChrystal’s assessment has split the Beltway along partisan lines, as expected. Karen DeYoung also reminds readers that McChrystal’s strategy came from the President himself originally:
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s grim assessment of the Afghanistan war has opened a divide between the military, which is pushing for an early decision to send more troops, and civilian policymakers who are increasingly doubtful of an escalating nation-building effort.
Senior military officials emphasized Monday that McChrystal’s conclusion that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan “will likely result in failure” without an urgent infusion of troops has been endorsed by the uniformed leadership. That includes Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command and architect of the troop “surge” strategy widely seen as helping U.S. forces turn the corner in Iraq.
But before any decision is made, some of President Obama’s civilian advisers have proposed looking at other, less costly options to address his primary goal of preventing al-Qaeda from reestablishing itself in Afghanistan. Those options include a redirection of U.S. efforts — away from protecting the Afghan population and building the Afghan state and toward persuading the Taliban to stop fighting — as well as an escalation of targeted attacks against al-Qaeda itself in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Obama’s public remarks on Afghanistan indicate that he has begun to rethink the counterinsurgency strategy he set in motion six months ago, even as his generals have embraced it. The equation on the ground has changed markedly since his March announcement, with attacks by Taliban fighters showing greater sophistication, U.S. casualties rising, and the chances increasing that Afghanistan will be left with an illegitimate government after widespread fraud in recent presidential elections.
What if McChrystal resigns? It will present Obama with a big political problem. McChrystal would only resign if he planned to go public with his frustrations over the White House strategy in Af-Pak. McChrystal to this point has not been seen as a candidate for political office (as his commander, General David Petraeus, has been seen by some), which would make public criticisms even more troublesome if McChrystal chose to go that route.
Even if McChrystal keeps his mouth shut, his sudden resignation would draw close attention to Obama’s waffling on Afghanistan and his commitment to the war Obama repeatedly vowed to fight while a candidate for the presidency. Commanding officers do not just quit for no reason, and they don’t quit in the middle of wars they believe they are being allowed to fight and win. His resignation would create a strong impression that Obama has flip-flopped and lacked the leadership to articulate a new strategy.
But would McChrystal resign? My guess is that he would only do so in the last extremity. If he believes that Obama has no intention of fighting seriously, then McChrystal would pack his bags. If it just comes down to a dispute over troop levels, those can be resolved with good communication. The fact that this report got leaked (as well as the threat to resign) indicates that communication has degraded significantly between the White House and its top commander in the war zone, which is a separate but related matter.
Update: Michael Goldfarb has a good analysis of the political aspects of the leak.