The messy departure of Gen Stanley A McChrystal is likely to make the Obama administration’s internal debates over Afghanistan even more pointed, giving the military a powerful advocate for staying the course as it prepares for a reckoning with more impatient officials like Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
President Obama insisted he was switching military leaders, not strategies, when he fired General McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, on Wednesday. But administration insiders say there have been preliminary discussions about whether to rethink the approach to a war that is clearly bogging down.
In those deliberations, the new commander, Gen. David H Petraeus, brings more political capital than his predecessor. The White House may find it harder to overrule the man who rode to the rescue after the McChrystal blowup, particularly since he has so much support among Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. He wrote the Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency strategy, and has voiced only qualified support for Obama’s timetable to start withdrawing troops by July 2011.
Obama reiterated on Thursday that the pace of withdrawal would be open to debate. “We did not say that starting July 2011 suddenly there would be no troops from the US or allied countries in Afghanistan,” he said. “We said we’d begin a transition phase in which the Afghan government is taking on more responsibility.”
At the same time, though, the setbacks on the battlefield and persistent questions about the reliability of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, have strengthened Biden’s hand, some officials said. During the policy debate last fall, he argued for a narrower counterterrorism strategy with many fewer troops and a clear endgame for the US. In many ways, setting the July 2011 date was a concession to Biden.