I feel sorry for Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. The top commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is in hot water. Last week, he rejected the idea of scaling down U.S. troop levels and fighting al-Qaida there with drones and missiles. Such a strategy shift - which some in the administration are advancing - would be "shortsighted," he said.
The general's sin was not that he was wrong - I believe his analysis is correct - but that he spoke in public. He got out ahead of his commander in chief, President Obama, who is reviewing Afghanistan strategy for the second time this year.
Pundits claimed McChrystal was "boxing the president in," and administration officials cautioned him to give his advice privately, through the chain of command. No doubt the general would have been wiser to do so. Yet the Afghanistan review is taking place in such a backhanded and politicized fashion that I sympathize with his lapse.
When he took office, Obama commissioned a policy review for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He put forward his new strategy in March and repeated it in a speech in August. The goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan. That goal, said Obama, requires preventing a return of Taliban rule to Afghanistan.
In May, Obama sacked his Afghan commander, Gen. David McKiernan, for failing to pursue the strategy aggressively enough. He chose McChrystal to replace him. After arriving in June, the new commander was asked to assess the situation, and someone leaked his pessimistic report to The Washington Post last month.
The general was blunt: The new strategy had to be carried out very differently - and with adequate resources - or it could fail. But his report was much more than a general's eternal plaint for more troops.
Two points were central. First, the key to our eventual drawdown was to train more Afghan security forces. However, that training would take time; in the interim, NATO forces would have to prevent the Taliban from taking over. This would require more NATO resources, civilian and military.
Second, the general noted, Afghans lacked confidence in the international community's commitment. "A perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents," said McChrystal, even though most Afghans dislike the Taliban. We must convince Afghans our commitment is unwavering, he said.
McChrystal worried that "failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months) - while Afghan security capacity matures - risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."
And he was clear: "if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban ... Afghanistan could again become a base for terrorism." Within the U.S. military, there is a strong belief that al-Qaida would move operatives back to Afghanistan if the Taliban took control of large swaths of the country. McChrystal feels the urgency of a situation that is deteriorating fast.
Yet suddenly, last month, a full-blown debate emerged within the administration over whether the Afghan battle is worth fighting. Spurred by the McChrystal report, the debate questioned not only troop levels, but also whether the fight should be waged. It is colored by understandable fears within the administration that the Afghan war may drag down all of Obama's domestic plans.
Reports have dribbled out that some White House aides believe the war can better be fought with drones and special forces. This ignores the fact that, should the Taliban retake Afghanistan, we would have no ground intelligence for such a strategy. Other Obama officials are reportedly asking whether it matters if the Taliban come back to power.
So I can understand why McChrystal debunked these ideas in response to a questioner at a speech in London. Probably, he was speaking out of frustration. His was not a MacArthur-esque gesture openly challenging a president. This general is trying to carry out Obama's declared goals.
If the general must button his lip, it would help for senior administration officials to address these key questions, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates did this week. He spoke on CNN about the danger of a Taliban takeover, saying it would send a hugely empowering message to jihadis worldwide if the Taliban defeated the United States and NATO - just as Afghan militants defeated the Soviet Union.
Let us hope Obama will heed Gates' warning and listen to McChrystal in private talks.