"Petraeus and McChrystal have put Obama in a trick bag," says Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a former top aide to Secretary of State Colin Powell. "We had this happen one time before, with Douglas MacArthur" — the right-wing general who was fired after he defied President Truman over the Korean War in 1951.
It isn't clear how far McChrystal and his boss, Petraeus, are willing to go. There have been rumors around the Pentagon that McChrystal might quit if Obama doesn't give him what he wants — a move that would fuel Republican criticism of Obama. "He'll be a good soldier, but he will only go so far," a senior U.S. military officer in Kabul told reporters.
For his part, Obama moved quickly to handle the insurrection. One day after McChrystal's defiant London speech, the president unexpectedly summoned the general to a one-on-one meeting aboard an idling Air Force One in Copenhagen. No details of the discussion were released, but two days later Jim Jones, the retired Marine general who now serves as Obama's national-security adviser, publicly rebuked McChrystal, declaring that it is "better for military advice to come up through the chain of command."
The struggle between the White House and the Pentagon is an important test of whether the president can take command in a political storm that could tear his administration apart. Obama himself is partly to blame for the position he finds himself in. During the presidential campaign last year, Obama praised the Afghan conflict as "the right war," in contrast to the bungled and unnecessary invasion of Iraq. Once in office, he ordered 21,000 additional troops to Kabul, painting the war as vital to America's national security. "If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban or allows Al Qaeda to go unchallenged," the president declared, "that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can." He also fired the commanding general in Afghanistan, David McKiernan, and replaced him with McChrystal, a close Petraeus ally and an advocate of the doctrine of counterinsurgency.
When it comes to COIN, as it's known in military jargon, Petraeus literally wrote the book: the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which has become the bible for proponents of COIN. In its essence, counterinsurgency demands an extremely troop-intensive, village-by-village effort to win hearts and minds among the population of an occupied country, supported by a lethal killing machine and an expensive "clear, hold and build" program to eliminate the enemy from an area and consolidate those gains. Within the military, COIN has developed a cult following. "It has become almost a religion for some people," says Paul Pillar, a former top intelligence official with wide expertise in terrorism and the Middle East.
Supporters of Petraeus and McChrystal acknowledge that applying COIN to Afghanistan means a heavy U.S. commitment to war, in both blood and treasure. Even if Obama dispatches 40,000 additional troops, on top of the 68,000 Americans already committed, we won't even know if it's working for at least a year. "That is something that will certainly take 12 to 18 months to assess," said Kim Kagan, the president of the Institute for the Study of War, who helped write McChrystal's request for more troops. Bruce Riedel, a COIN advocate and veteran CIA officer who led Obama's review of the war last March, is even more blunt. "Anyone who thinks that in 12 to 18 months we're going to be anywhere close to victory," he said, "is living in a fantasyland."
In addition, the doctrine of counterinsurgency virtually assures long-running military campaigns in other hot spots, even as we're engaged in combat and rebuilding operations in Afghanistan. "We're going to be involved in this type of activity in a number of countries for the next 15 to 20 years," said Lt. Gen. David Barno, a COIN advocate who served as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
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