Decision Time Afghanistan – How Much Of It Is About Politics?
Richard Fernandez of the Belmont Club writes a very well done essay on the present Afghanistan decision making process. He compares Andrew Sullivan’s apologia with David Kilcullen’s concerns about the time involved in reaching a decision. You can disregard the Sullivan part except to understand that he thinks it is just marvelous that Obama is taking so much time considering all the options and doing his homework before making a decision to change the strategy there.
Fernandez reminds us of a very important point that seems to have escaped many as they await the decision. The strategy President Obama is planning on changing is his own. In March of this year he said:
Good morning. Today, I am announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This marks the conclusion of a careful policy review that I ordered as soon as I took office. My Administration has heard from our military commanders and diplomats. We have consulted with the Afghan and Pakistani governments; with our partners and NATO allies; and with other donors and international organizations. And we have also worked closely with members of Congress here at home. Now, I’d like to speak clearly and candidly to the American people. … So let me be clear …
This is surely something the administration would like you to forget. And thus you hear all the nonsense that’s been coming out lately (and has gotten pushback from former VP Dick Cheney) that Afghanistan was just left adrift by the former administration. It is nonsense because the basis of the March “careful policy review” was that which the former Bush administration had done.
However that’s not really the point – the point is that a “comprehensive, new strategy” for both Afghanistan and Pakistan were announced by this administration. A new general, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was named to implement that strategy. Now, suddenly, they’re involved in reviewing that strategy.
What, if anything, has changed?
The event that has been blamed is the national election in Afghanistan. And, as mentioned, it has been coupled with the baseless claim that the Afghan war was left adrift by the Bush administration. The former problem, while serious, isn’t a show stopper (see Iraq). The latter problem is simply untrue. What has changed is the politics surrounding Afghanistan. The polls show a deeply divided United States with the majority not favoring an escalation and many favoring we leave altogether. Given his domestic political problems trying to ram an unpopular agenda through Congress – which has succeeded in splitting his base as well as firing up the political opposition – he needs something with which to bring his base back in line. Afghanistan may be that issue.
Consider too who he has involved in his review: VP Joe Biden who is pushing a minimalist “super ninja” strategy. He wants to use special operators and drones to kill al Qaeda. Let Pakistan and Afghanistan sort themselves out politically. Obviously if that means the Taliban takes over Afghanistan again, well, so be it. The fact that Biden was wrong about every aspect of Iraq as he suggested strategy then doesn’t seem to matter. Also included is Sen. John Kerry. He’s considered such a lightweight when it comes to military matters that he’s usually ignored outright when he pontificates on matters about which he obviously hasn’t a clue. He thinks Gen. McChrystal’s plan goes “too far, too fast”. The fact that Kerry has somehow managed to include himself and is apparently being taken seriously by Obama tells you how little Obama knows about any of this and how out of his depth he is on the issue.
Lastly, there’s David Axelrod, who claims he “doesn’t have a seat at the table” when these policy reviews take place, but attends every one of them anyway. While he may not have an official seat at the policy review table, he owns the table of chief political advisor and Obama sits at that table daily. Axelrod’s job is to divine the political winds and keep Obama sailing in the fair ones.
Thus the strategy review. When Gen. McChrystal accepted the job to implement the Obama administration’s new March ’09 comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, he began what all new commanders do – a commander’s review. In that review he takes the strategy and mission and he games them out. He attempts to ascertain, to the best of his ability, what it will take in terms of resources to accomplish the mission the strategy outlines. Once he has ascertained that, he submits his plan to his commander – in this case, directly to the President.
It isn’t a complicated process – the boss gives you a mission. You analyze the mission, determine what it takes to accomplish the mission and you go back to the boss with a plan and a request for resources. That’s precisely what happened.
However, in the interim, politics began to rear its head. In July, right in the middle of the assessment process, Obama’s National Security Advisor and former Marine General Jim Jones showed up in Afghanistan and made it very clear that requests for more troops would not be a welcome event. Speaking to Marine commanders there he was quite clear:
Now suppose you’re the president, Jones told them, and the requests come into the White House for yet more force. How do you think Obama might look at this? Jones asked, casting his eyes around the colonels. How do you think he might feel?
Jones let the question hang in the air-conditioned, fluorescent-lighted room. Nicholson and the colonels said nothing.
Well, Jones went on, after all those additional troops, 17,000 plus 4,000 more, if there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have “a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment.” Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF — which in the military and elsewhere means “What the [expletive]?”
Nicholson and his colonels — all or nearly all veterans of Iraq — seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get.
The “17,000 plus 4,000 more” troops were a part of that March ’09 “new” strategy based on the former administration’s plans. Jones made it very clear that regardless of what these commanders thought they needed to do the mission they’d been given, they’d better plan on doing it with what they had. And later, in another interview, Jones dismissed any additional troops requests or their need by claiming that all commanders in the field ask for more troops, whether they really need them or not.
Apparently, however, Gen. McChrystal decided, Jones admonishment notwithstanding, that he couldn’t with clear conscience, heed that advice and accomplish the mission given (although rumor has it he cut his initial estimate of troops needed from 60,000 to 40,000). He went ahead and submitted his plan at the end of August asking for more resources and troops.
Back to that fairly simple process I outlined above. Once you submit your plan to your boss with the request for resources necessary to accomplish that mission you normally then sit down with him and explain and defend your plan. That, of course, has never happened. And that 20 minutes on the tarmac in Airforce One while in Copenhagen did not give McChrystal the opportunity to do that. That meeting was driven by bad press and politics, not a desire to meet with and discuss the plan McChrystal had submitted. The required meeting, to date, still hasn’t happened. But numerous “war council” meetings continue to happen. And as word leaks out, it appears politics – not a mission to succeed in Afghanistan – is taking center stage.
On October 31st, in their Washington Post article, Anne Kornblut and Greg Jaffe made it clear that Obama was seeking a political decision vs. a military one:
The military chiefs have been largely supportive of a resource request by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, that would by one Pentagon estimate require the deployment of 44,000 additional troops. But opinion among members of Obama’s national security team is divided, and he now appears to be seeking a compromise solution that would satisfy both his military and civilian advisers.
A worse scenario cannot be imagined. But it is in perfect keeping with how a politician would work vs. a Commander in Chief. Compromise is the bread-and-butter of politics. It is about keeping constituencies satisfied, if not happy. Contentment means votes. But compromise in terms of military strategy usually means disaster. Attempting to satisfy “both his military and civilian advisers” means he’s looking for the best political solution, not the best military solution.
And since such a solution is hardly obvious, he dithers. Sullivan mistakes that for slow, considered and methodical decision making. But in reality, it is a method of stalling as old man himself. Ask for more information, reject the options presented, send your minions back to the drawing board – all the while making the argument or implication that it is the fault of those presenting the options for not getting it right, not the CiC. Of course, anyone with any military experience knows that’s nonsense since it is the “commander’s guidance” from which any options are derived.
That brings us back to David Kilcullen. If you’re not familiar with Kilcullen, he’s considered to be one of the gurus when it comes to counter-insurgency warfare. And Kilcullen gets to the very nut of the problem with this “process” that Sullivan mistakenly praises:
David Kilcullen, one of the world’s leading authorities on counter-insurgency and an adviser to the British government as well as the US state department, said Obama’s delay in reaching a decision over extra troops had been “messy”. He said it not only worried US allies but created uncertainty the Taliban could exploit.
Speaking in an interview with the Guardian, he compared the president to someone “pontificating” over whether to send enough firefighters into a burning building to put a fire out. …
Kilcullen expressed concern that Obama might deny McChrystal the 40,000 extra troops and split the difference between the four options, the kind of fudge common in domestic politics.
“Time is running out for us to make a decision. We can either put in enough troops to control the environment or we can credibly communicate our intention to leave. Either could work. Splitting the difference is not the way to go,” Kilcullen said.
“It feels to me that all these options are dangerously close to the middle ground and we have to consider whether the middle ground is a good place to be. The middle ground is a good place on domestic issues, but not on strategy. You either commit to D-Day and invade the continent or you get Suez. Half-measures end up with Suez. Do it or not do it.”
There is no “third way”. At least not a credible one. In this sort of warfare, to use a poker analogy, you either fold or you’re “all in”. Domestic political considerations should have absolutely no place in these sorts of deliberations and decisions. But it is clear they do.
That is also clearly a disservice (to put it mildly) to every man and woman in uniform serving our nation today. It is also something which may easily get many of them killed.
So let’s remember President Obama’s words at NAS Jacksonville when he told those gathered there:
And while I will never hesitate to use force to protect the American people or our vital interests, I also promise you this-and this is very important as we consider our next steps in Afghanistan:
I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm’s way. I won’t risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary. And if it is necessary, we will back you up. Because you deserve the strategy, the clear mission, the defined goals and the equipment and support you need to get the job done. That’s the promise I make to you.
Gen. McChrystal, based on the commander’s guidance issued by the president in his March ’09 strategy for Afghanistan, has done his review and submitted his plan to accomplish the mission outlined in that strategy. Now the commander wants to change the strategy.
Is it any wonder that many doubt Obama’s commitment to success in Afghanistan, military or otherwise? Is it any wonder that many are concluding that he’s looking for “off ramps” well before talking about “on ramps”. And is it any wonder then, that those considering how this process is progressing have come to the conclusion that it’s not about the military or winning in Afghanistan – it’s about the politics of getting re-elected before pulling the plug.
If that’s the case, President Obama will be seen as spending the lives of American soldiers in an attempt to protect his political viability. There is nothing most could think of which would be more despicable than that.