Yesterday there was some chatter that the smart thing would be for General Stanley McChrystal to offer his resignation but for President Barack Obama to decline it. That had the advantage of cuteness, but I'm not sure it was ever feasible and not least because, as best I can tell, the more military-minded an observer is the more certain they were that the general had to go.
It is not, evidently, an ideal situation. Of course it isn't, it's Afghanistan. Nevertheless, from both a political and military perspective replacing McChrystal with General David Petraeus is as close to a win-win result as its possible to salvage from this
Even so, Melanie Phillips has a point when she writes:
McChrystal shouldn’t have given that interview. But whether or not he is sacked will make little difference to the real issue here. For what the article has confirmed is that the American prosecution of the Afghanistan war is flawed, chaotic, and incompetent and will hit the buffers unless someone gets a grip. And that means fighting this war as if it really is a war and not a ‘nation-building’ exercise; and saying unequivocally that America is there for as long as it takes because, however awful and bloody this conflict is, the alternative – a jihadi-boosting defeat for the west and the Talebanisation of Pakistan – is infinitely worse.
And so we stay, hoping that something will turn-up to transform the situation and for fear, as Melanie says, that the alternatives may be even less palatable than the more-easily-quantified costs of continuing with the war. "This is a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy," Obama said this afternoon. Whether that will do much to reassure anyone is a different matter. And of course it may lead to policy changes anyway. At the very least, I suspect there may be further personnel changes ahead.
Today Obama clarified what July 2011 means — somewhat. It means what Gen. Petraeus, his new commander, told the Senate he supports: not a “race for the exits,” but a “conditions-based,” open-ended transition. If that still sounds unclear, it’s because the policy itself is unclear. But by placing Petraeus at the helm, it means that 2012 will probably look more like right now, in terms of troop levels and U.S. troops fighting, than anything Biden prefers. That is, unless Petraeus and Obama come to a consensus that conditions on the ground necessitate more rapid withdrawals. Think of the deadline as getting deliberately blurrier. Tom Ricks called his last book about Petraeus “The Gamble.” It’s sequel time.
The strategy is supposed to undergo a review in December. Don’t expect that review to be so substantial. Petraeus will only be in theater for a few months. While he may not want to launch his own strategy review, he’ll surely want to keep his options open, and will be able to argue that the extraordinary conditions that put him back in charge of a war will necessitate that delay. Make no mistake: This is Obama intensifying his strategy. That’s the major change that has emerged after Gen. McChrystal’s unexpected self-immolation.