The Washington Post reports today that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, apologized for an upcoming article in Rolling Stone magazine that portrays him and senior officials on his team as dismissive of top Obama administration officials. As a result, General McChrystal has been summoned to the White House to explain his comments. It is a case of poor judgment on the part of the general and his staff to air comments on the character of senior civilian leaders to a reporter, but both the White House and the brass need to put this media gaff aside and focus on the real problem – destroying al Qaeda, defeating the Taliban and helping establish an Afghanistan that can govern itself.

As long as we are being frank, we ought to acknowledge that problem #1 in the president’s strategy was setting an artificial timeline for withdrawal. That led our military leaders to question the strategy in Afghanistan and put tremendous, unnecessary pressure on our armed forces to accomplish the task at hand. And while that timeline provoked questions among top brass, it also led everyone involved to question America’s resolve, from the government in Kabul, to the people in the villages, to the terrorists in the caves, and to the military in Pakistan. In particular, that has led Pakistan to continue to play a dangerous double game, trying to “manage” the Taliban rather than defeat them and root out al Qaeda. We have already seen the consequences – the Times Square Bomber admitted he was trained by the Pakistani Taliban in Pakistan, and he was sent here to kill Americans.

As Heritage regional expert Lisa Curtis writes:

By highlighting that the U.S. will begin withdrawing troops in July 2011, President Obama signals to Afghans and others that the U.S. is not truly committed to prevailing over the Taliban.

This weakens Afghan resolve to resist the Taliban now for fear they will be back in power in the near future. It also reinforces Pakistan’s inclination to hedge on its support for the Afghan Taliban leadership based on its territory.

There are, however, no do-overs in war. The president can’t pretend that he never set a timeline, and he can’t undo his decision to send too few troops for the surge, rather than deploying the thousands more the generals in the field said would have been optimum to implement a better counter-insurgency strategy.  The president, however, can make things right.

First, he can dump the timeline.

Second, he can make a commitment to the American people that we will achieve victory in Afghanistan, and he can give our military leaders whatever additional forces or resources they need to get the job done.

Third, he can be crystal clear about how to deal with the Taliban. Curtis writes, “U.S. and NATO forces must first weaken the Taliban on the battlefield before engaging in serious negotiations with the leadership.”

Fourth, the Administration has to press Pakistan to deal firmly and unambiguously with all terrorists, including those targeting its arch-rival, India.

President Obama’s strategy has provoked serious questions among military leaders and our allies, it has posed serious problems for our troops on the ground, and it has undermined America’s ability to win the war. In short, we do not need an artificial timeline for withdrawal. We need a strategy for victory.

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