Stan McChrystal is out, relieved of command, sacked, given his marching orders. David Petraeus is in, handed direct command in Afghanistan, dropped squarely in "put up or shut up" territory. It just might have been Barack Obama's pre-emptive strike on his adversaries in uniform.
The insubordinate McChrystal is benched. He embarrassed Obama into sending an extra 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan by leaking his strategy to the media before his Commander in Chief could make his call. Then he showed in the less than stellar Marja campaign (that McChrystal himself recently called a "bleeding ulcer") that his strategy to send the Taliban reeling in Kandahar was iffy at best. Then, of course, McChrystal and his aides shot their mouths off about key administration officials to a Rolling Stone reporter. That's strike three and Stan was sent straight to the dugout.
But the brilliant part is to toss the job to David Petraeus, McChrystal's former direct superior. The Republicans have been weighing the prospect of having the general take on Obama for the White House in 2012. Petraeus has been decidedly unconvincing in denying any interest in running. What better way to eliminate this rival than to tie Afghanistan round his neck?
It would take a miracle for Petraeus to do any better than the mediocre performance McChrystal displayed in Afghanistan. It's simply not in the cards to send the Taliban running any longer. This has gone so far beyond a military solution that Petraeus can't hope to emerge as a heroic victor. He pulled off that sleight of hand trick in Iraq where his "surge" was credited with accomplishing all manner of things it never really achieved. He won't get away with that conjuring act again.
In fact, the war that David Petraeus is charged with winning offends just about every precept of counterinsurgency warfare prescribed in the military field manual (FM3-24) Petraeus himself crafted before he came running to Bush's rescue. Here are some of the cardinal rules that lie shattered in pieces on the floor of General David's tent:
Go big or go home.
Before he got the command gig in Iraq, Petraeus explained to the press that battling against an insurgency is the most labour-intensive form of warfare of them all. That's because the government side has to secure the population throughout the country. FM3-24 prescribes a ratio of foot soldiers to civilians ranging between 1:25 and 1:50. By that calculation, America ought to have gone into Afghanistan with a combat force of about 350,000 even on the low end of the scale. Instead they never got more than a third of the minimum in the field in Afghanistan. Oopsie!
Win Fast or Lose
Way back when, Petraeus pointed out to enthralled reporters that counterinsurgency warfare is very time sensitive. He pointed out that counterinsurgent forces, especially foreign troops, have a very limited shelf life before they transition, in the eyes of the locals, from liberator/defenders to occupier/oppressors. In other words, you simply cannot afford to piss away nine years indecisively. Oopsie!
It Really Is a War for Hearts and Minds
Petraeus has always known that counterinsurgency is political warfare, not military warfare. Conventional forces cannot win by military force of arms. In a military war context, the insurgents win simply by surviving. Heavy firepower, that understrength forces have to rely on, causes civilian casualties that infuriate the populace and drive support to the insurgents. Winning the political war means flooding the countryside with a lot of soldiers who mainly stand about without firing a shot. They guard the civilians, keep them secure from the guerrillas and allow the central government to consolidate its power over the countryside.
In short, the Americans have never had the tools to win the political war that will decide the issue in Afghanistan. At home in America there's no longer the political or public will to send an extra two hundred thousand troops to Afghanistan even if, at this late stage, they could make a telling difference. That's the second political war, the one at home. Once the public and their political masters lose their will to wage never ending war without result, it's over.
Obama's move puts Petraeus in the hot seat. The Afghan war is now his to lose and, by his own rules, it's unwinnable. The American people love a winner but losing generals have never done very well at the ballot box.