Obama’s firing of McChrystal and his appointment of Patraeus in his stead is likely a necessary condition for Obama to salvage something from Afghanistan–and his presidency. It is not sufficient.
It is not sufficient even to salvage something from Afghanistan because McChrystal’s discontent (or, more accurately, the discontent of his staff) was only symptomatic of far deeper problems.
The problem the next layer down was–is–the dysfunctional relationship between the military one the one hand and civilian and intelligence officials on the other. The model relationship between Patraeus and Ryan Crocker in Iraq is often cited, but perhaps an even better analogy would be the team of General Creighton Abrams, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, and crucially, head of the Pacification Program (and CIA official) William Colby. Intelligence/CIA is a big part of the war in Afghanistan, and some accounts suggest that the military/CIA cooperation could use some improvement.
This means that Obama should give a serious look at replacing Eikenberry and Holbrooke too. Indeed, under the circumstances, starting with a clean slate of people who are in agreement with Patraeus would be a very wise thing to do.
But the most important problem is even deeper than that. Obama needs to fish or cut bait about the war. He has to make a major strategic decision to go large or go home. His time limited mini-surge is a disaster. Afghans are wisely hedging their bets. Allies are bailing. And who can blame either? Obama’s fecklessness makes it dangerous indeed to count on US resolve. Better to cut exposure, or to make deals with someone with the resolve, than to put one’s faith in a diffident (at best) Obama.
In other words, Obama has to commit to victory as Bush did in Iraq or 2007, or say it’s not worth the candle. It is a time for choosing. McChrystal is probably right that Obama felt extremely uncomfortable–read, out of his depth–in dealing with Afghanistan and the military personnel involved with it. Given that, it seems difficult to imagine that Obama can commit to a victory-oriented strategy in a way that is credible to the Afghans, our allies, and most crucially, our own military. (I actually think this would be a wise move politically for Obama, because it represents the area where he has the greatest control and where expectations are already snake belly low. But it so cuts against his grain I doubt he will do this.)
It is ironic indeed that Obama’s fate is in the hands of a man, Patraeus, whom he insulted and demeaned when he was merely a poser senator pandering to his lefty base. I think Patraeus is genuinely above such things, but to politicians, especially Chicago politicians, who are by nature paranoid and suspicious, I would not be surprised if Obama is haunted by the fear of Patraeus taking his revenge. That he appointed him nonetheless speaks to his desperation, and lack of viable options.
And speaking of Obama’s base, many have commented on MoveOn.org’s removal of the “General Betray Us” page from its website. I am not surprised by its removal: I am stunned that it was still there to be removed. When it was launched, the campaign was low and vicious, but its premise–that the surge in Iraq was doomed to failure–had yet to be contradicted by the facts. It has been, and decisively so, yet the page lived on. Serious people would acknowledge facts, admit their mistaken judgment, express relief and gratitude that their fears had not been realized–and move on. Its failure to do so suggests that “MoveOn.org” is the most Orwellianly (is that a word?–it is now!) misnamed organization in captivity.