I had a chance today, at a news briefing at the Pentagon, to ask Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, about plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan. I pointed out the contradiction between President Obama’s campaign pledge to add “two or three brigades” of troops and the US commander’s determination to add 30,000 troops, two or three times as much as Obama had promised to add.
Significantly, in their answer, Gates and Mullen stressed that no decision has yet been made about adding troops. That’s important, because it opens a window — yes, it’s a small one — for opponents of expanding the Afghan war to persuade the White House that it’s not a good idea.
Here’s the transcript of my exchange with Gates and Mullen:
Dreyfuss: During the campaign, President Obama said that he would, when elected, send perhaps two to three additional brigades of troops to Afghanistan. Lately, actually since the election, we’ve heard talk about as many as 30,000 troops — significantly more than that — going to Afghanistan. Have any decisions been actually made, pending this review that the president has talked about, in terms of how many American forces might go to Afghanistan this year?
Gates: No final decision has been made. Part of — part of what the president made clear was that they intend to look at Iraq and Afghanistan holistically. And so I think part of the — one of the things that the president will expect before making decisions is what the implications are not just for Iraq, but for Afghanistan. And I expect, as I say that, to be part of those decisions to be forthcoming pretty soon.
Do you want to add anything to that?
Mullen: I — I really wouldn’t add a lot except to say that these are the level of forces that the commander has asked for. So again, we’ve looked very carefully at how to do that. There have been some recommendations that have been made up the chain of command, but no decisions yet.
And consistent with what I said before, I think a very deliberate process now, but rapid as it can be, to both recommend and have the president make this decision — these decisions.
Dreyfuss: Are there detailed plans that you’ve already seen for what these 30,000 troops would do — in other words, where they would be deployed specifically in terms of what provinces and cities, and what their tasks would be? Or is it just a ballpark estimate about what these —
Mullen: No. I — consistent with how the commanders on the ground have acted for years now is when they come forward, they come forward and have a very clear plan of what they want the forces to do. And that’s certainly the case here as well.
It’s clear to me that even though Gates and Mullen say that no decision has been made, they are pushing for the additional troops. And it seems pretty clear that Obama has decided to add at least some troops to the mix.
Another reporter asked if the new administration has any idea of what its goals in Afghanistan are. “What is our end state? When are we done there?” she asked.
Here’s Gates’ complete answer, which, you’ll notice, was framed in terms of the commitment of “three to five years” for even the limited goals he outlines:
I think one of the — one of the points where I suspect both administrations come to the same conclusion is that the goals we did have for Afghanistan are too broad and too far into the future, are too future-oriented, and that we need more concrete goals that can be achieved realistically within three to five years in terms of reestablishing control in certain areas, providing security for the population, going after al Qaeda, preventing the reestablishment of terrorism, better performance in terms of delivery of services to the people, some very concrete things.
So I think that that’s — that’s a starting point. But you know, the president, I think, has referred — I think referred last night to the need for a comprehensive assessment on Afghanistan. And what we have — you know, I mean, we have a — we have a NATO campaign plan. We have an RC [Regional Command] South campaign plan. We have a commander’s campaign plan. We have General Petraeus’s study. And we have the Afghan review that was conducted in the last administration at the White House.
So I think all of these pieces will be inputs into the — into the review that this administration will take in terms of determining what those nearer-term goals should be and how we get to where we — where we can achieve them.
Meanwhile, across the river, at the State Department Hillary Clinton was introducing Richard Holbrooke, her hawkish adviser, as her special envoy for Afghanistan (and Pakistan). Holbooke was looking at “long-term,” not short-term goals, in Afghanistan, though he avoided saying anything of substance, really. It’s his job to pull together all elements of US policy for a coordinated strategy in the war in Afghanistan and spilling over into neighboring Pakistan. Here’s what Holbrooke did say:
We know what our long-term objective is. I hope I will be able to fill out the mandate which Secretary Clinton has mentioned: to help coordinate a clearly chaotic foreign assistance program, which must be pulled together; to work closely with General Petraeus, CENTCOM, Admiral Mullen, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General McKiernan and the command in Afghanistan, to create a more coherent program.
If our resources are mobilized and coordinated and pulled together, we can quadruple, quintuple, multiply by tenfold the effectiveness of our efforts there.
The Times, meanwhile, carries a lengthy piece by Dexter Filkins today on the vast areas of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban, without any US or NATO presence to deter them. An excerpt:
The Taliban are everywhere the soldiers are not, the saying goes in the southern part of the country. …
The general [Brig. Gen. John W. Nicholson] is going to get a lot more troops very soon. American commanders in southern Afghanistan have been told to make plans to accept nearly all of the 20,000 to 30,000 additional troops that the Obama administration has agreed to deploy. … The commanders here call the current situation “stalemate,” meaning they can hold what they have but cannot do much else. …
It is perhaps in Kandahar, one of the provincial capitals, where the lack of troops is most evident. About 3,000 Canadian soldiers are assigned to secure the city, home to about 500,000 people. In a recent visit, this reporter traveled the city for five days and did not see a single Canadian soldier on the streets.
The real point is that it’s a stalemate. Obama has pledged to carry out a top-to-bottom review of Afghan policy. If that takes a month, or three months, or six months, so be it. There’s no need to rush more troops there just because the generals want them.