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McChrystal flap raises deeper issue

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Military brass are obliged to render their advice up the chain of command and then march to the decided step. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of American forces in Afghanistan, strayed from that protocol when, with a reporter present, he and his staff spoke with contempt of top civilian members of President Barack Obama’s national security team. The president had no choice but to accept the resignation that the four-star general recognized was proper to offer.

In the presence of Michael Hastings, preparing an article for Rolling Stone magazine, McChrystal’s aides spoke critically of Vice President Joe Biden as "Bite Me," and the national security adviser, retired Gen. James L. Jones, as a "clown." McChrystal himself depicted a message from Richard Holbrooke, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, as a nuisance, remarking, "Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke. I don’t even want to open it."

Hastings concluded in the lengthy article that winning the war in Afghanistan, "it would seem, is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge."

The legitimate firing of McChrystal contrasts with the forced retirement in 2003 of former four-star Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki of Kauai, now Obama’s secretary of veterans affairs, from his post as Army chief of staff.

In response to a question by a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Shinseki had said that occupying Iraq would require "several hundred thousand troops" to be successful. That statement was denounced by Paul D. Wolfowitz, then deputy secretary of defense, as "wildly off the mark," and Shinseki was shown the Pentagon exit.

Obama said he welcomes debate among his team but the "vital mission" in Afghanistan "includes adherence to a strict code of conduct" applied "equally to newly enlisted privates and to the general officer who commands them. … That includes strict adherence to the military chain of command, and respect for civilian control over that chain of command."

The president said replacing McChrystal with Gen. David H. Petraeus, now head of the U.S. Central Command for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, "is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy." However, the incident is likely to increase concern over the current policy, of which McChrystal was the architect. Heightened public scrutiny is deserved.

After nine years of war, Americans are tired of, and confused by, the war in Afghanistan and its goals. Dysfunction among Obama’s civilian and military war team has set in, and that — not merely McChrystal’s flub — has compromised the mission.

McChrystal’s fall from grace should be parlayed into a pivotal time for Obama to forcefully clarify and articulate to the public his commitment to his Afghan policy — and the means of fulfilling its goals.


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