It’s a strange turn of events when some snarky personal attacks made in Rolling Stone magazine can have an explosive worldwide effect that will change the course of history. But that is what has unfolded this week as Barack Obama has been forced to fire the top US general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, after he and his top aides made inflammatory remarks about the president and vice president to a reporter from the music magazine. Astonishingly, the general and those around him personally insulted Obama, who is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and cast doubt on the whole mission in Afghanistan. The trash-talking included calling Vice President Joe Biden 'vice president bite me'.
It was the worst possible timing, coming at a time of increasing violence in Afghanistan when NATO forces appear increasingly bogged down there. Relations between NATO and Afghan president Hamid Karzai are at an all-time low following the almost surely rigged elections that kept him in power. The original mission to root out Al Qaeda has nothing to do with the current situation now that the terrorist organisation has moved its base to Pakistan, so the war has largely become focused on nation-building. The conflict recently became the longest war in US history, a grim milestone. This month has been the deadliest for NATO soldiers since the war began almost nine years ago.
The war has been extremely unpopular in Europe for years, and now for the first time a majority of US citizens also think the war is not worth fighting. With the war put in so much doubt, it is hard to see how European leaders can continue to justify their involvement in the NATO coalition in Afghanistan to their citizens. The general impression in Europe is that there is no realistic chance of success for NATO in Afghanistan.
The media reaction in the UK, which has the second-largest number of troops in Afghanistan after the US, has been one of exasperation. Even the hard-right tabloid The Daily Mail today called the Afghanistan “a war we can’t win.” The British media is not alone in this impression. Today Poland issued a call to its NATO allies to set a withdrawal date from Afghanistan as a matter of urgency. Poland said whatever NATO decides, it will pull out its own troops in 2012 regardless.
But as grim as the prospects are for remaining in the country, the prospects for leaving are even more dire. Neighbouring Pakistan is on the verge of collapse, and chaos in Afghanistan following a withdrawal could easily spread. Obama and the NATO leadership face a wrath of bad options, none of which is likely to yield a favourable result. The question now becomes, which course of action will do the least damage?