President Obama, in announcing the replacement of Gen. Stanley McChrystal moments ago, sought to reassure the American people about the war in Afghanistan. "This is a change in personnel," he declared, "but not a change in policy."
That's precisely the problem.
Changing generals isn't likely to resolve the real trouble in Afghanistan: the fundamental flaws in the U.S. strategy of counterinsurgency.
So why did the president pick David Petraeus, the most political — and media-savvy — general of his generation, to replace McChrystal? Petraeus makes sense. He's considered the hero of Iraq, and he has the public's trust. He won't be caught dead calling the offensive in Marja a "bleeding ulcer," as McChrystal did. His appointment neutralizes him as a potential (though highly unlikely) political rival for 2012. He literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency, drafting the Army field manual on the U.S. strategy that is being pursued in Afghanistan. Above all, he is a master at crafting a narrative that Americans are eager to hear. He has almost single-handedly convinced many Washington insiders that his "surge" in Iraq resulted in some kind of major victory in Mesopotamia — a notion that is right up there with thinking that Pizza Hut has good pizza.
Here is the narrative we're about to be sold: Things will be tough in Afghanistan. It's going to get worse before it gets better. But eventually, with good old American perseverance, violence will drop (fingers crossed). When that happens, U.S. soldiers will stop dying in large numbers — and Americans will stop paying attention in large numbers.
It's a comforting narrative, but it's likely to prove to be a false one. Even if counterinsurgency works here in Afghanistan as it did in Iraq, the best we can hope for is to turn defeat into a face-saving draw. We will have spent hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives to pursue a strategy that, in the end, probably won't make us any safer from terrorists.
Petraeus represents a change in style, not substance. He's also got the backing of key figures within the president's National Security Council. He has good relations with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. His most notable flaw, according to those who know him, is his über-ambition. In Iraq, he played the role of a young, fresh-faced general, who arrived just in the nick of time to rescue America from catastrophic defeat. But now, in Afghanistan, Petraeus gets to play the role of reluctant hero. In Petraeus the Sequel, it's Kabul or bust. With the odds stacked against him, the veteran general, who recently fainted while testifying before Congress, is being asked to pick up his holster and once again save the day. Assuming the never-ending conflict in Afghanistan doesn't destroy his reputation as a military genius, perhaps Petraeus will find himself in the Oval Office in 2016, still overseeing a war that is already the longest in American history.