Contrary to what many (but not all) commentators seem to think, the firing of Stanley McChrystal and his replacement by General David Petraeus is not that significant. To be more precise, it will only be a significant event if Obama uses this shift as an opportunity to move towards withdrawal. Otherwise, we'll just rearrange some deck chairs and watch the war effort continue to founder.
Until the Rolling Stone article surfaced, there was little sign that Obama was unhappy with McChrystal's handling of the war. (Gareth Porter of IPS reports that there was in fact growing discontent within the administration over the lack of progress, but it hadn't surfaced in any visible way.) More importantly, there was no sign that Petraeus had serious problems with McChrystal's performance or visible doubts about the need to continue the fight until "victory" was achieved. Don't forget that Petraeus's status and prestige is based on his knowledge of and commitment to counter-insurgency (COIN) warfare, and COIN is exactly what McChrystal was doing too. Unlike the "surge" in Iraq, which involved a fundamental shift in U.S. strategy and tactics, there is no reason to expect Petraeus to implement a fundamentally different approach in Afghanistan. The subhead in today's New York Times says it all: "Obama Says Afghan Policy Won't Change after Dismissal." Uh-oh.
There is also no reason to believe Petraeus will achieve significantly different results because the problem in Afghanistan is not the quality of our generals. Bad leadership can hamper a war effort, of course, but it is a fallacy to think that all we need to do is get the right leader in place at the top and then all will be well. (Military history is often written in ways that glorifies the role of the "great captains," but there's a lot more to military success than just a smart and inspired commanders).
The real problem is that our campaign in Afghanistan is like trying to nail jelly to the wall. The Karzai government is a liability, not an asset, and we have no way of making it perform better. Similarly, we have no way of forcing the Taliban to sit still and fight us out in the open -- where they would be easy to beat -- when confronted by superior force, they simply melt away and wait us out. Although troop morale seems to be good, our forces have been fighting a long time and burnout is beginning to set in. Our NATO allies are leaving the field, and Americans are beginning to realize that the costs of continuing this fight exceed either the benefits of victory or the risks of withdrawal. "Victory" in Afghanistan -- whatever that might mean -- wouldn't make al Qaeda a lot weaker; and "failure" wouldn't make them much stronger either. Putting a new general in charge doesn't change that calculus at all.
Third, some prominent commentators like Andrew Sullivan now worry that Obama is in effect hostage to Petraeus, because the latter's stature and prestige will make it almost impossible for Obama to overrule him should he ask for more troops or seek to continue the war indefinitely. That is an obvious danger, but that same prestige and stature also makes Petraeus the best person to help Obama sell a prudent decision to cut our losses and get out. Moreover, Petraeus' stature is based primarily on the supposed success of the 2007 "surge" in Iraq, a campaign that achieved the tactical objective of lowering the level of violenace but did not achieve the strategic goal of political reconciliation. If Iraq goes south again as U.S. forces withdraw, some of Petraeus's current luster is bound to diminish and Obama's freedom of maneuver might increase.
In any case, the only important question here is what Obama is telling Petraeus to do. In essence, McChrystal's gaffe has given Obama a chance for a "do-over." He made the wrong choice in the fall of 2009, when he agreed to escalate the U.S. presence despite all the obvious pitfalls. Has he learned from the results of the past nine months? Does he now realize that he is not the master of events in Afghanistan, and that he cannot achieve success there simply by giving inspiring speeches and sending more troops? And has he begun to sense that this war might not be winnable at acceptable cost, and that continuing the fight is putting his entire presidency at risk?
If he has, he'll tell Petraeus that his mission isn't to pacify Afghanistan, build a stable central government there, or even "defeat, disrupt, and defeat al Qaeda" (which isn't in Afghanistan anymore). Rather, his mission is to find a way for the United States to end this futile and unnecessary adventure in social engineering, so that we can turn our attention (and our finite resources) to more pressing problems.
If Obama hasn't learned that lesson, then he will find himself stuck in the Afghan quagmire for the remainder of his time in office. As with Johnson in Vietnam and Bush in Iraq, the war will suck the life out of his presidency and make it impossible to achieve more urgent domestic and international priorities. And because he's now had two opportunities to chart a different course, it will have been entirely his own doing.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.