Replacing McChrystal with Petraeus doesn’t change our Afghanistan problem
But it’s worth remembering why McChrystal said those stupid things to Rolling Stone in the first place. Almost all of the quotes read to me as expressions of deep-seated frustration with the way the Afghanistan war is going, though McChrystal clearly wants more aggression while I want less. He called his signature military operation to "clear and hold" Marja (in COIN parlance) a "bleeding ulcer." His top aids didn’t think the end of the war, whenever it may come, would "look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win."
This feeling shouldn’t be a surprise. The Afghanistan war is going badly and it’s impossible to hide that fact. We have hardly an ally in President Karzai, casualties keep going up, corruption is rampant, we continue killing civilians, and all this is on the front pages of newspapers. And it’s the longest war we’ve ever been in, and the costs continue to mount. It’s no wonder support for the war among the general population is tepid and you’ve seen multiple high-level administration and military officials questioning whether the war can actually be "won," whatever that means.
Now, with McChrystal’s firing – a great win for democracy, I agree – Petraeus inherits the same screwed-up situation McChrystal dealt with. We should expect the same results.
Granted, Petraeus is certainly more media savvy and political astute – I don’t think we’ll see a piece in the press with his personal thoughts – but he’s going to be similarly frustrated. Why? Because there is no military solution to Afghanistan. COIN will continue to fail. In fact, keeping up with military solutions will only make things worse.
Replacing one general with another does nothing to change the fundamentals of this war. And even a slick operator like Petraeus won’t be able to hide the failings. As Rebecca Griffen says, McChrystal should take his Afghanistan strategy with him as he leaves the field.
The only way to change course if Afghanistan is to actually change course. President Obama, you can start by responsibly withdrawing the troops and returning to civilian control what has always been a civilian problem.