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EDITORIAL: McChrystal’s final agony

The general’s sacking highlights Obama’s Afghan incompetence

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Gen. Stanley McChrystal has ended his military career with a self-inflicted wound. He's the victim of a needless crisis in which President Obama seems more defensive than decisive.

Gen. McChrystal was a daring special operator and effective battlefield leader but seemed uncomfortable with some aspects of higher-level command. An informed source told The Washington Times that the political aspects of his job "distracted him from what he would rather be doing, which is killing the enemy."

The statements in the Rolling Stone magazine article that have generated the most buzz are the kind of griping one hears in any organization, but in the military and government, they are best not aired publicly. Gen. McChrystal's error in judgment was allowing strategic communications adviser Duncan Boothby, a reputed "New Media" guru, to give reporter Michael Hastings access to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander's inner circle. The most controversial parts of the story are statements made by anonymous McChrystal aides who were in Paris "getting hammered," according to Mr. Hastings. Someone should have been riding herd on this situation, especially since the men were out of theater blowing off steam. It's no surprise that Mr. Boothby was the first to lose his job because of the public-relations meltdown.

The flap was avoidable. A stronger president could have handled it differently. Gen. McChrystal did not personally make the most egregious comments quoted in the magazine. A commander in chief whose leadership was less in doubt could have made a quip about the article and moved on, but Mr. Obama is exceptionally image-conscious. So, rather than dismiss the article, he dramatically summoned Gen. McChrystal from the battlefront and took his resignation while sympathetic bloggers peddled analogies to Truman and Lincoln and their incorrigible generals that do not bear close scrutiny.

Mr. Obama's exercise in executive leadership aside, the greater narrative is how much of the Rolling Stone report rings true. The article described how the president looked "uncomfortable and intimidated" at a meeting with senior military leaders soon after he took office. He seemed disengaged at his first Oval Office meeting with Gen. McChrystal, months after he took command, and "clearly didn't know anything about [the general], who he was." This meeting was described as a "10 minute photo-op." The article discusses the wariness of anyone in a position of authority in the administration to discuss the concept of "victory" in Afghanistan. It details aspects of the counterproductive interagency competition among U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, National Security Adviser James L. Jones and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mr. Obama chirps that he "won't tolerate division," but he has failed to unify his own Afghan team. The controversial comments from Gen. McChrystal's staff, while impolitic, are rooted in fact.

The article also conveyed the sense among the troops that things are going wrong on the ground in Afghanistan, that the drift at the top is somehow permeating down to their level. The troops are the ones who have lost the most in this sad episode. The United States has an important mission in Afghanistan - and this shake-up is a significant distraction, damaging to the coalition and harmful to the forces on the ground who would like to have a sense that their military and civilian leaders know what they are doing. Our warriors want to know their sacrifices aren't in vain, that their achievements won't be squandered. They can take heart that Gen. David H. Petraeus, with his proven leadership record, is assuming direct responsibility for the war, but whether he can overcome the O Force's dysfunction remains to be seen.

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