By Marco Evers, Marc Hujer, Susanne Koelbl and Gregor Peter Schmitz
It is a Monday evening, at about 8 p.m., when US President Barack Obama's press secretary makes his way from the West Wing of the White House to the president's private quarters, a copy of the now infamous article in the music magazine Rolling Stone in hand. When he reaches the president's quarters, he immediately starts looking for Obama, who is normally having dinner with his family at this time. Mr. President, he says as Obama meets him on the ground floor, there's an article here that you have to see. In the article, General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, is quoted as making inappropriate remarks about everyone and everything.
Obama begins reading the article, but he doesn't have to read much more than the first two or three paragraphs, in which the general is described on a trip to Paris, where he behaves like a teenager, engaging in coarse male humor with his staff, and, referring to a scheduled dinner with a French cabinet minister, says: "I would rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner." One of his aides characterizes the dinner engagement as "fucking gay."
After reading the first few paragraphs, Obama looks irate, says a member of his staff. At this point, it is already clear to him that McChrystal will have to go, and he hasn't even read the disrespectful passages in which he himself is mentioned. "The president wasn't furious about the things that were said about him," says the staff member. Instead, his immediate concern, apparently, was over how such insults could affect the US's allies in Afghanistan, like the French, who have supported the war for years.
Obama's aides like to tell the story of that decisive evening, when the president saw the Rolling Stone article for the first time and read how his supreme commander in Afghanistan humiliated him, his country and his administration. They see it as evidence of how quickly Obama took the initiative that evening, because he understood immediately how dangerous a general can be who insults his allies in the middle of a war and makes snide comments about the civilians on the White House's Afghanistan team.
'Now Is the Time for All of Us to Come Together'
Obama fired the disrespectful general 40 hours later. Now Obama is standing in the White House Rose Garden with Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the United States Central Command for the entire Middle East and Afghanistan, a position in which he was McChrystal's superior. Now he will also become the general's successor. Obama seems cool and decisive when he says, momentously: "War is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general or a president … now is the time for all of us to come together."
Until this moment, Petraeus was probably the most unlikely candidate for the position, because, in complying with Obama's request, he is not only taking a step down in the hierarchy to run the war from Kabul. Petraeus has political talents, and some say that could even run against Obama as the Republican presidential candidate in 2012. If he had any such intentions, taking a step that aligns him more closely with Obama would not have been expedient. For the president, it was a successful coup that hardly anyone had expected. The Washington Post offered sardonic praise for the president, writing that the scene at the White House had been "rare enough to be worth the suffering (through temperatures of 95 degrees Fahrenheit in the Rose Garden): The commander in chief was being commanding."
Is this the break Obama has been waiting for, a "stroke of brilliance, an unassailable move, politically and strategically," as Fred Kaplan writes in the online magazine Slate? Or has Obama just become even more embroiled in a war that could already be unwinnable?
In appointing Petraeus to success McChrystal, Obama has chosen the strongest proponent of the troop surge strategy. But if the war continues to drag on, he will come to be seen as a war president and, when he runs for reelection, could have trouble gaining the support of voters who already hold it against him that the Afghanistan campaign has already lasted longer than World War II.
Can the War Still Be Won?
The war in Afghanistan is not just controversial among Americans. There are growing doubts among Obama's allies over whether they should continue to support the war in Central Asia by sending their own troops. No European government "can afford to sustain a foreign policy that is so deeply unpopular at home ... for very long," Pakistani strategist Ahmed Rashid recently warned in an essay in SPIEGEL.
On the Sunday before last, the increasingly war-weary British mourned the death of their 300th fallen soldier since the beginning of the Afghanistan mission. During the course of the week, another seven young Britons lost their lives. Such losses reinforce doubts over whether the conflict can still be won militarily.
But hardly anyone dares to openly express these doubts. There is, however, one person who has repeatedly questioned the Afghanistan strategy. Unlike McChrystal, Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain's envoy to Afghanistan, has pushed for negotiations with the Taliban. Last week, the British Foreign Office abruptly announced that Cowper-Coles had taken "extended leave" from his position in Afghanistan, and it appears unlikely that he will return to Afghanistan.
The Poles, the seventh-largest contingent in Afghanistan, also recently announced their upcoming withdrawal from the mission, following on the heels of the Canadians and the Dutch, who decided to bring home their troops months ago.
Germany, however, where the majority of citizens also oppose the war, is not expected to announce its withdrawal -- not yet, at any rate. Although McChrystal frequently made derisive remarks about the German troops in Afghanistan, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg regretted the departure of the ousted general: "I have always had an excellent working relationship with McChrystal and see few reasons to make any changes to his strategy."
With his decisive move, Obama undoubtedly scored an important victory at home. Petraeus is America's most popular general and uncontroversial across the political spectrum. Even Obama's Republican adversary John McCain praised the president's decision and said that he would do whatever he could to ensure that the Senate confirmed Petraeus this week. Newsweek wrote: "By replacing a general who was universally criticized with a general who almost can't be criticized, President Obama pulled a political masterstroke."
The military leadership can't complain about the personnel change at the top, even though the Pentagon and its top brass held McChrystal in high regard. A change was already overdue in Obama's Afghanistan team. McChrystal was too much at odds with the US ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, with the national security advisor, General James Jones, and with the special envoy for Afghanistan, the choleric Richard Holbrooke.
McChrystal was too proud of his men and their unceremonious behavior, men who were leery of diplomatic tactics. In the backslapping macho world in which McChrystal felt at home, politeness borders on flattery. Beleaguered Afghan President Hamid Karzai was one of his only allies, and for Karzai, McChrystal was the last American in whom he had full confidence.
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