President Barack Obama has a terrible dilemma in Afghanistan. The surge isn't working. His ostensible partner in Afghan president Hamid Karzai is sickeningly corrupt. His team on the ground is bickering. His top general, Stanley McChrystal, has been fired for the vulgar rant that he and his staff issued on the record for Rolling Stone magazine. June represented the deadliest month thus far for foreign troops in Afghanistan.
Thus far, Obama insists that the United States will remain along the current lines. ''What we saw … was a change in personnel but not a change in policy,'' Obama said of his decision to fire McChrystal. With the announcement of David Petraeus as the man to replace McChrystal as the top general in Afghanistan, Obama rightly asserts, ''We will not miss a beat because of the change of command in the Afghan theater.''
The president may not miss a beat, but he needs to change the tune. Despite the platitudes about staying the course in the Afghan war, things need to change and quickly. In the country's Helmand province, U.S. military forces came in strength in order to deal a crushing blow to the Taliban. Operations earlier this year in Marjah were supposed to be a rapid success. Four months later, intense fighting still continues—prompting McChrystal to dub the area a ''bleeding ulcer.'' Meanwhile, a planned offensive in the Taliban hub of Kandahar is still on hold.
Gen. Petraeus may be helpful in that regard. As the general who led the U.S. surge in Iraq and headed the U.S. Central Command, Petraeus knows better than anyone that the current surge comes in a completely different context than the one that he led years ago in Iraq. He realizes that a counter-insurgency strategy can only work if the political actors are unified in purpose and if there is good coordination with Pakistan—something that is not now happening. He knows that in order to effectively combat al-Qaida, the U.S. military may need to make an alliance with some of the region's most unsavory characters.
More than anything else, Obama needs to stay firm on the need to start pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by July 2011. The effects of the U.S. troop surge, along with diplomatic efforts, will be clear to all by then.
Finally, Obama needs to nominate a new commander of U.S. Central Command who clearly understands this mandate and is capable of enforcing it.
Greg Beals is a political analyst based in the Middle East. He has worked for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and for the U.N. Security Council Somalia Monitoring Group. You can contact him here.