Evans Politics

Pentagon Seeks to Force Obama’s Hand

The generals are impatient with the White House. General Stanley McChrystal, who took over command of U.S. and NATO troops there in June, passed his strategic assessment seeking more resources and troops up the chain of authority to President Obama on August 30. He and Central Command General David Petraeus want a quick decision from their commander-in-chief. So far, Obama has been unwilling to give them one. Indeed, he said in an interview with CNN’s John King on Sunday:

“I don’t want to put the resource question before the strategy question. … Because there is a natural inclination to say, if I get more, then I can do more. But right now, the question is, the first question is, are we doing the right thing? Are we pursuing the right strategy?”

That point of view, which is not a new one with the President, may well be what sparked a decision by someone at the Pentagon to release a 66-page unclassified version of McChrystal’s assessment to Bob Woodward at Washington Post. Headlined McChrystal: More Forces or ‘Mission Failure’, the unclassified assessment does not include anything on exactly how many more troops, but previous reports have said it offers three risk-scenarios ranging from 10,000 to 45,000. Whatever the ultimate number, McChrystal stated in the assessent that the next 12 months is crucial. Without those added resources, according to him, the insurgency may become unbeatable. “Failure to provide adequate resources also risks a longer conflict, greater casualties, higher overall costs, and ultimately, a critical loss of political support. Any of these risks, in turn, are likely to result in mission failure,” McChrystal stated.In a companion piece written by Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung, the Post reported:

Some officials charge that the military has been trying to push Obama into a corner with public statements such as those by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the situation in Afghanistan is “serious and deteriorating” and “probably needs more forces.” One official questioned whether McChrystal had already gone beyond his writ with public statements describing the protection of the Afghan population as more important than killing Taliban fighters.

When Obama announced his strategy in March, there were few specifics fleshing out his broad goals, and the military was left to interpret how to implement them. As they struggle over how to adjust to changing reality on the ground, some in the administration have begun to fault McChrystal for taking the policy beyond where Obama intended, with no easy exit.

But Obama’s deliberative pace — he has held only one meeting of his top national security advisers to discuss McChrystal’s report so far — is a source of growing consternation within the military. “Either accept the assessment or correct it, or let’s have a discussion,” one Pentagon official said. “Will you read it and tell us what you think?” Within the military, this official said, “there is a frustration. A significant frustration. A serious frustration.”

Blogger Steve Hynds at Newshoggers nails it with his commentary, Obama Mousetrapped By Pentagon:

President Obama spent much of the day on TV talk shows telling America that he was skeptical about troop increases in Afghanistan and that the strategy there wasn’t set in stone.

Then, just as everyone was talking about that, the Pentagon gave the Washington Post an exclusive copy of the unclassified version of General McChrystal’s report … In it, he says that he needs more troops or the mission “will likely result in failure”, and that the new mission is quite definitely “Focus On The Population”. …

Way to make the President look clueless on what his commanders seem certain about!

As Hynds points out, this is most certainly not McChrystal’s doing alone. General Petraeus, who was previously the commanding general in Iraq, co-wrote the field manual on counter-insurgency the generals are trying out in Afghanistan, and is widely seen as wanting to have his mail delivered to 1600 Pennsylvania.

Hynds wrote:

Here’s the thing – I don’t for a second believe McChrystal is acting alone, any more than General Odierno in Iraq was acting alone when he kicked up his heels earlier this year about US troops staying beyond the time alloted by the SOFA agreement. Both are too closely orbiting the career fortunes of their mutual; commander. We may well be looking at the first moves in the Petraeus 2012 campaign as well as at the usual military/civilian rivalry.

McClatchy News, with a well-deserved reputation for getting things right from the beginning in its coverage of the Iraq war, has noted more than usual tension between the generals and the White House. Nancy A. Youssef
reported Friday:

In Kabul, some members of McChrystal’s staff said they don’t understand why Obama called Afghanistan a “war of necessity” but still hasn’t given them the resources they need to turn things around quickly.

Three officers at the Pentagon and in Kabul told McClatchy that the McChrystal they know would resign before he’d stand behind a faltering policy that he thought would endanger his forces or the strategy.

“Yes, he’ll be a good soldier, but he will only go so far,” a senior official in Kabul said. “He’ll hold his ground. He’s not going to bend to political pressure.”

As anybody who can read well knows, the news from Afghanistan has not been good. Since the U.S. surge began late this spring, both Taliban and other insurgents have been fighting an innovative and effective guerrilla war that has gained them a wider presence in areas of the country they haven’t had access to since the U.S. invasion in 2001. More than one-fourth of total 841 U.S. military fatalities in the 8-year-old war have occurred this year. Twenty-nine U.S. soldiers and marines have died this month so far. NATO forces are also taking heavy casualties. Massive fraud afflicted the elections that the U.S. was counting on to legitimize the Hamid Karzai government. The training program for the Afghan National Army, which is eventually supposed to field 240,000 troops, is a disaster. Although there are supposedly 90,000 ready-and-able troops already in the ANA, there were few of them available to fight with the 4000 U.S. troops recently battling in Helmand province. Growing poppies for heroin provides 10% of the country’s gross domestic product. Corruption is endemic. War criminals like Rashid Dostum still have considerable clout. And on and on.

This isn’t news. Indeed, you can read many similar criticisms in McChrystal’s assessment. The general is also critical of tactics used so far, especially those of the NATO forces and the military’s prison system in Afghanistan. He also speaks of a growing sophistication on the part of the insurgents.

Happily, important questions are being asked by more and more members of Congress – by the usual suspects, obviously, but also by Senators such as Dianne Feinstein. If everybody agrees there is no wholly military solution, why is there a 20-to-1 military-to-civilian budget ratio for Afghanistan operations? Can the U.S. counter-insurgency plan really work without hundreds of thousands of combat troops? After eight years, is U.S. presence more of a problem than a solution, creating more enemies with each air strike that kills civilians? What benchmarks will have to be met before success can be declared? And what’s a realistic guessestimate for when the troops can come home? Is it General Petraeus’s suggested decade or more? Or British Army Commander General Sir David Richards’s 40 years?

President Obama has asked the most important question of all. “Are we doing the right thing?” Most Americans say no.

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See Meet the Afghan Army: Is It a Figment of Washington’s Imagination?, Truthout, September 20, 2009, by Ann Jones.

See More Troops? A Tough Choice On Afghanistan Looms, NPR, September 21, 2009, by Kevin Whitehead.

Obama ‘skeptical’ about more troops, Politico, September 21, 2009, by John Gerstein.

See Obama Hints He’ll Resist McChrystal, The Nation, September 21, 2009, by Robert Dreyfuss, excerpt quoted verbatim: “But Obama suggested yesterday, during his marathon round of Sunday interviews, that he may not be ready to write McChrystal the blank check that he wants. Obama said that he ‘is not going to be driven by the politics of the moment,’ and he said that before he’ll add more troops he wants to make sure that the strategy is correct. He said, on CNN:

“Right now, the question is, the first question is, are we doing the right thing? Are we pursuing the right strategy? When we have clarity on that, then the question is, O.K., how do we resource it?”

On CBS Face the Nation, Obama said:

“Whatever decisions I make are going to be based first on a strategy to keep us safe, then we’ll figure out how to resource it. We’re not going to put the cart before the horse and just think by sending more troops we’re automatically going to make Americans safe.”