We all know that President Obama held a three-hour meeting at the White House yesterday on the situation in Afghanistan. The spinning has begun inside the beltway.
The Washington Post leads with “White House Eyeing Narrower War Effort: Top Officials Challenge General’s Assessment.” Read the article carefully, however, and you learn that a more accurate title would be “Some White House Officials . . .”
According to White House officials involved in the meeting, Vice President Biden offered some of the more pointed challenges to McChrystal, who attended the session by video link from Kabul. One official said Biden played the role of “skeptic in chief,” while other top officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, were muted in their comments.
Clinton has given no public signals about whether she is inclined to side with Biden or with McChrystal. But Clinton often sees eye to eye with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who also has kept his views private. She met with Gates on Tuesday and has cleared her afternoon schedule for Friday to meet with her Afghanistan team.
Biden has argued against increasing the number of U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan, currently scheduled to total 68,000 by the end of the year. He favors preserving the current force levels, stepping up Predator drone strikes on al-Qaeda leaders and increasing training for Afghan forces.
Nothing new on that. We already know that Biden has taken the point in opposition to General McChystal and General Petraeus. What is of interest is this:
McChrystal, whom Obama sent to Afghanistan in May after firing his predecessor, is making his case for additional resources publicly. In a speech Thursday at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, McChrystal said that “we must show resolve” and warned that “uncertainty disheartens our allies and emboldens our foes.”
Asked whether a more limited counterterrorism effort would succeed in Afghanistan, he said, “The short answer is: no. You have to navigate from where you are, not where you wish to be. A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a short-sighted strategy.”
So, on the very day that President Obama leads a high level White House seminar on Afghanistan strategy, General McChrystal is going public and telling the world what he thinks of Biden’s counter-proposal. The differences are stark and seemingly irreconcilable.
What’s the big deal? To put it bluntly, if Obama sides with Biden, it becomes nearly impossible to see how General McChrystal can continue serving as the Commanding General of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He’s already told us that the failure to provide the requested resources to fund the comprehensive counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy would result in mission failure. And he’s telling us here, in effect, that it is his considered military judgment that Biden’s proposed counter-terrorist strategy would fail.
If, at the end of the day, Obama ends up siding with Biden, General McChrystal will have to have a rather abrupt change of mind and turn that “no” into a “yes.” He will also rather abruptly have to change his mind with regard to “mission failure” should he not receive the resources required to pursue the COIN strategy. If in good conscience, he cannot perform such an about-face he will simply have to resign. In fact, if he truly believes that the Commander in Chief is asking him to execute a strategy that, in his professional judgment, he believes will end in failure, he has a moral and professional obligation to resign.
Now, I’m quite sure that President Obama and his “Senior White House Officials” are quite aware of all this. I suspect that Biden is being employed as a useful foil to publicly air alternative courses of action. That’s the way the game is played at the level of high-politics. Of course, when faced with being impaled on the horns of a dilemma, the reasonable thing to do is to try to figure out how to slip between the horns.
But this raises question as to the plausibility of alternative scenarios and courses of action. Those interested in considering the plausibility of various alternative courses of action in Afghanistan would be well-served to take a look at “Enemy Reactions to the US Strategy and Force-Sizing Options” a well-done powerpoint presentation by Frederick and Kimberly Kagan. The Kagan’s ask the right questions:
As we evaluate the various options available to us in Afghanistan, it is essential to consider the path from the current situation to the proposed future strategy. What will Afghanistan and the region look like as the US and NATO withdraw forces and prepare to pursue a pure counter‐terrorism strategy? How will the various enemy groups and Pakistan likely react to a reinforced counterinsurgency strategy? What would emphasizing only the training of Afghan security forces look like?
The enemy has a vote, as they say, although you wouldn’t know it from the way so many talking-heads and pundits have been talking about the issue. The Kagans ask how the Taliban and Al Qaeda will react to each of five alternative scenarios? What are the most likely and the most dangerous enemy courses of action in reaction to each? They also ask what the reaction of our NATO allies would be under each alternative scenario. Those familiar with the basics of military command and staff planning will readily recognize this as elementary aspects of military planning.
Whether you agree or disagree with their judgments, the Kagans have done a great service in laying out the options and making them accessible to the general public.