Biden Probably Wants to Renew His Rolling Stone Subscription

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 9:42 am

Vice President Biden will probably have the last laugh now that Gen. Stanley McChrystal is returning to Washington to learn his fate as commanding general in Afghanistan after insulting his civilian bosses and colleagues to Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings. No matter what happens to McChrystal, the article strengthens Biden’s hand in internal administration debates over Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy.

Should Obama fire McChrystal, it’s an opportunity to reorient Afghanistan strategy. Ironically, Hastings recounts Biden thinking McChrystal’s adjusted plan for Kandahar is “CT-plus,” meaning something closer to the counterterrorism-and-Pakistan-centric alternative Biden advocated last fall. I confess I don’t quite understand how he sees it that way. But it might convince Obama that McChrystal came around to Biden’s way of thinking anyway. And that no matter what, Afghanistan’s endgame is a political settlement with a Taliban divorced from al-Qaeda — a consensus view within the administration, including the senior military leadership — with Pakistan providing the political guarantees of Taliban compliance. That’s so Biden!

And if McChrystal ends up keeping his command, he’s in a chastened political and bureaucratic position. Hastings quotes an anonymous McChrystal aide musing about “a possibility we could ask for another surge of U.S. forces next summer if we see success here.” If there’s one thing McChrystal’s remarks to the magazine killed, it’s that. The barely concealed compromise within the Obama strategy for Afghanistan is that after the July 2011 transition to Afghan security control, McChrystal and counterinsurgency get phased down over time, and Lt. Gen. William Caldwell’s training mission for Afghan security forces gets phased up — as does Biden’s desired counterterrorism missions and emphasis on Pakistan. McChrystal and his allies will not be in any position to undo that bargain even if they want to.

Regardless of whether McChrystal should be fired — there’s, frankly, a compelling case to be made when considering the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s penalty of court martial for “any commissioned officer [using] contemptuous words” against the civilian chain of command — my guess is that he won’t be. Obama summoned McChrystal back to Washington pretty much immediately after the story hit, which suggests that he’s not thinking about a wholesale revision of his strategy. What’s more, if he does fire McChrystal, he’ll have the arduous task of finding new leadership for the war while the clock to July 2011 ticks, introducing new uncertainty among allies and enemies and NATO troops and dealing with another big round of strategy-in-disarray stories. All of which points to McChrystal having to learn to live with Biden — and the new influence that the general inadvertently gave the vice president.

Follow Spencer Ackerman on Twitter


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