I feel sorry for Stan McChrystal. He got sacked because his aides were too honest with a Rolling Stone reporter. They rashly exposed a problem that is undercutting the war effort: the infighting among civilian and military officials.
The general's aides shouldn't have mocked top civilian officials, and he deserved to be chastised. However, President Obama, in explaining the firing, said the war requires "unity of effort." If so, he'll need to do more than relieve the general.
McChrystal's staff made snide remarks to Rolling Stone about Vice President Biden, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and National Security Adviser James Jones. The general complained about being "betrayed" by Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul. Obama argued that the article "erodes the trust necessary for the team to work together."
What trust? The piece reflects serious tensions between Obama's civilian and military advisers in Kabul, fed by the conflicting positions of White House and Cabinet officials on Afghan strategy. These tensions make it impossible to fashion a coherent policy.
McChrystal and Eikenberry differed over how to wage the war and how to deal with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The relationship between embassy and military commanders in Kabul remains distant and mistrustful.
To complicate matters further, the president's special envoy to the region, the brilliant but brusque Holbrooke, is resented by embassy staff as well as many in the military. His infrequent presence causes confusion among Afghan officials about who speaks for the president.
Obama's D.C. team adds to the confusion, with Biden making statements about Obama's 2011 pullout deadline that conflict with those of the secretaries of defense and state, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton. The president has yet to clarify whose interpretation he endorses.
"This is a highly dysfunctional team," said former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, referring to those who work on the war in Afghanistan. "You can't win the big war if we're fighting the small ones with each other. And unity has to start at the top."
Indeed, the only good that might emerge from McChrystal's exit is if Obama -- and Gen. David Petraeus, his choice to succeed McChrystal -- can finally weld these players into a team that works together.
We are fortunate Petraeus is willing to step down from a broader command to take this job. He is wholly familiar with the strategy and the players, and has a history, in Iraq, of making counterinsurgency work.
He made military-civilian cooperation a virtual religion when he worked in Baghdad. If he wants to counteract the downside of McChrystal's exit, Obama should give Petraeus all the backing he needs.
And the president should use McChrystal's departure to send the message that his entire Afghan team needs to start cooperating. "Disharmony at the very top may breed [the tensions] you had with Eikenberry and McChrystal," said Crocker. "That permeates down. You have to sort it out at the top level."
Obama needs to lead by example. If Gates, Petraeus and Clinton believe (wisely, in my book) that the 2011 deadline depends on conditions, and Biden says otherwise, the president should clarify his position and keep everyone on message.
It's tragic enough that a talented general has been disgraced. But at least this episode should serve some purpose. Otherwise, the civilian-military divisions that brought down McChrystal will continue to haunt Petraeus and undercut our efforts in Afghanistan.