The new issue of Rolling Stone magazine has yet to hit newsstands, but its centerpiece - a devastating expose of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan - already has sent shockwaves through Washington. The article, copies of which already have found their way onto the Internet, paints an unflattering picture of a military commander at war with his own civilian leadership, replete with insults of sitting officials and serious charges of political malfeasance.
Since news of the piece leaked over the weekend, Gen. McChrystal has issued repeated public mea culpas and was forced to fly to Washington for an in-person dressing down by the president. The apologies were not enough; Wednesday afternoon, President Obama announced that he had relieved Gen. McChrystal of duty as commander of the Afghan theater.
The decision was the correct one. In his capacity as commander in chief, Mr. Obama has the right to dismiss wayward military commanders, and there were compelling reasons for him to do so in this instance. Insubordination of the kind detailed in Rolling Stone should be untenable even in peacetime. In the midst of an existential conflict such as the one in which we have found ourselves since Sept. 11, 2001, it is simply intolerable.
But the furor over Gen. McChrystal's fall from grace should not obscure the larger issue in play - that of deep and enduring divisions within the administration over the way ahead in Afghanistan. Gen. McChrystal may have been handpicked by the White House in May 2009 to take over the Afghan war effort. But, as the Rolling Stone profile makes clear, since then, Mr. Obama has been largely disengaged from the particulars of America's most pressing military commitment. Other administration officials, such as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and State Department Afghan envoy Richard Holbrooke, have not, but their involvement has tended to be more complicating than clarifying, at least in military terms.
Then there is the war effort itself. Nearly nine years after the Sept. 11 attacks launched the American effort to overthrow al Qaeda and the Taliban, the Afghan front remains in flux. The Obama administration's early, heartening focus on an "AfPak" plan linking security and stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan has given way to a more modest strategy aimed at routing al Qaeda from its former stronghold. Based upon that limited goal, the White House has hedged on its military commitment to the theater.
True, Mr. Obama decided back in December to deploy about 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan - a number roughly in keeping with that formally requested by Gen. McChrystal in his bottom-up review of U.S. strategy last fall. From the start, however, that deployment came with a poison pill. The Obama administration made clear that America's expanded commitment in Afghanistan had a short shelf life - just 1 1/2 years. Under the current plan, the United States will remove its "surge" of troops by July 2011, essentially restoring the status-quo ante and providing the Taliban with a date certain for when it can redouble its resistance.
It's no wonder Washington has had problems in recent weeks in its relations with Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who has become increasingly skeptical of long-term collaboration with an America that's clearly eyeing the exits. Nor should it come as a surprise that U.S. allies in NATO are beginning to retract their support for the Afghanistan mission as well because they have no stomach for inheriting the conflict from Washington after next summer.
The White House has, in effect, stacked the deck against lasting success in Afghanistan. In the process, it has placed its military leaders - Gen. McChrystal among them - in the untenable position of losing American lives to implement a strategy that, whatever the tactical successes in the short term, is increasingly likely to be a strategic failure in the long run.
Gen. McChrystal's conduct was unbecoming, and he paid the price, but it reflects a real and profound frustration on the part of the military about the current state of drift in America's approach to Afghanistan. That drift is something the White House will need to rectify, even after Gen. McChrystal.