Both the New York Times and the Washington Post carried feature-length, page one articles yesterday analyzing the inside debate over President Obama’s Afghanistan policy. The Times piece, by Peter Baker, was called: “How Obama Came to Plan for ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan.” The Post story, “Obama pressed for faster surge: Afghan review a marathon,” was written by Anne E. Kornblut, Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung.
Take some time and read both of them in full. But here I’m summarizing some key points that emerged in the two stories, reflecting what I see as a clear division between Obama’s own point of view and that of his more hawkish advisers, including General McChrystal, General Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Gates, and Secretary of State Clinton. The differences fall into two key areas. First, Obama consistently rejected the all-out, nation-building counterinsurgency strategy whose chief advocate was, of course, McChrystal. And second, Obama insisted throughout the months-long review that the United States must plan for an exit. According to the two newspaper accounts, at least, tthe 2011 date is a firm one, in Obama’s mind at least.
Let’s highlight some of the key moments.
One turning point in the discussion, according to the Post, came when McChrystal declared that his mission, as he saw it, was: “Defeat the Taliban.” Speaking on the record, General Jones, the national security adviser, says that McChrystal had concocted a strategy that “was obviously something much bigger and more longer-lasting . . . than we had intended.” Here’s the relevant passage:
In June, McChrystal noted, he had arrived in Afghanistan and set about fulfilling his assignment. His lean face, hovering on the screen at the end of the table, was replaced by a mission statement on a slide: “Defeat the Taliban. Secure the Population.”
“Is that really what you think your mission is?” one of those in the Situation Room asked.
On the face of it, it was impossible — the Taliban were part of the fabric of the Pashtun belt of southern Afghanistan, culturally if not ideologically supported by a significant part of the population. “We don’t need to do that,” Gates said, according to a participant. “That’s an open-ended, forever commitment.”
But that was precisely his mission, McChrystal responded, and it was enshrined in the Strategic Implementation Plan — the execution orders for the March strategy, written by the NSC staff.
“I wouldn’t say there was quite a ‘whoa’ moment,” a senior defense official said of the reaction around the table. “It was just sort of a recognition that, ‘Duh, that’s what, in effect, the commander understands he’s been told to do.’ Everybody said, ‘He’s right.’ ”
“It was clear that Stan took a very literal interpretation of the intent” of the NSC document, said Jones, who had signed the orders himself. “I’m not sure that in his position I wouldn’t have done the same thing, as a military commander.” But what McChrystal created in his assessment “was obviously something much bigger and more longer-lasting . . . than we had intended.”
That’s coherent with my understanding of what Obama and his advisers believe, namely, that the goal in Afghanistan is not to defeat the Taliban but merely to stall its momentum so that negotiations can take place. The position of Obama and his advisers is, in my opinion, wrong, since talks with the Taliban — and with their sponsors in Pakistan’s military and intelligence service, the ISI — could begin now. Still, it’s clear to me that Obama does not subscribe to McChrystal’s long war policy. Thus, the 2011 end date.
As the Times piece points out:
Just two weeks before General McChrystal warned of failure at the end of August, Mr. Obama described Afghanistan as a “war of necessity.” When he announced his new strategy last week, those words were nowhere to be found. Instead, while recommitting to the war on Al Qaeda, he made clear that the larger struggle for Afghanistan had to be balanced against the cost in blood and treasure and brought to an end.
The Post adds:
On Oct. 9, after awaking to the news that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama listened to McChrystal’s presentation. The “mission” slide included the same words: “Defeat the Taliban.” But a red box had been added beside it saying that the mission was being redefined, Jones said. Another participant recalled that the word “degrade” had been proposed to replace “defeat.” …
Said a senior White House adviser who took extensive notes of the meeting: “The big moment when the mission became a narrower one was when we realized we’re not going to kill every last member of the Taliban.”
The Times notes that McChyrstal’s insubordinate political comments, including during a speech in London in which he said that Vice President Biden’s less ambitious strategy would fail, provoked enormous anger in the White House, adding:
The furor rattled General McChrystal, who, unlike General Petraeus, was not a savvy Washington operator. And it stunned others in the military, who were at first “bewildered by how over the top the reaction was from the White House,” as one military official put it.
It also proved to be what one review participant called a “head-snapping” moment of revelation for the military. The president, they suddenly realized, was not simply updating his previous strategy but essentially starting over from scratch.
In the course of the discussion, Obama told his aides: “This is America’s war. But I don’t want to make an open-ended commitment.” The Times notes that McChrystal was shocked and stunned by the memo from US Ambassador Eikenberry in Kabul that played down the need for more troops, signalling an important division within the deliberations:
The cable stunned some in the military. The reaction at the Pentagon, said one official, was “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” — military slang for an expression of shock. Among the officers caught off guard were General McChrystal and his staff, for whom the cable was “a complete surprise,” said another official, even though the commander and the ambassador meet three times a week.
Throughout the discussion, Obama was conscious of the Vietnam analogies, and he directed his speech writer, Ben Rhodes, specifically to prepare a rebuttal to charges that Obama was repeating LBJ’s blunders. At every turn, Obama was committed to a timetable that starts an exit, though he seems to have deferred to objections from Gates by building in the idea that the post-July, 2011, withdrawal would be conditions-based:
On … Sunday, Nov. 29, he summoned his national security team to the Oval Office. He had made his decision. He would send 30,000 troops as quickly as possible, then begin the withdrawal in July 2011. In deference to Mr. Gates’s concerns, the pace and endpoint of the withdrawal would be determined by conditions at the time.
“I’m not asking you to change what you believe,” the president told his advisers. “But if you do not agree with me, say so now.” There was a pause and no one said anything.
“Tell me now,” he repeated.
Mr. Biden asked only if this constituted a presidential order. Mr. Gates and others signaled agreement
“Fully support, sir,” Admiral Mullen said.
“Ditto,” General Petraeus said.
Is there flexibility in the idea that the 2011 date might be postponed after the next review, in December, 2010? Obama says no:
Mr. Obama then went to the Situation Room to call General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry. The president made it clear that in the next assessment in December 2010 he would not contemplate more troops. “It will only be about the flexibility in how we draw down, not if we draw down,” he said.
In spinning the decision, on yesterday’s talk shows, Gates, Clinton, and Jones were fuzzy, of course, about the meaning of the 2011 deadline. Jones called it a “ramp,” not a “cliff,” meaning that the withdrawal would be gradual. Gates, in particular, seemed to relish emphasizing that the withdrawal could be, well, one soldier, as reported today in the Times:
“There isn’t a deadline,” Mr. Gates said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “What we have is a specific date on which we will begin transferring responsibility for security district by district, province by province in Afghanistan, to the Afghans.”
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Mr. Gates said that under the plan, 100,000 American troops would be in Afghanistan in July 2011, and “some handful, or some small number, or whatever the conditions permit, will begin to withdraw at that time.”
Gates, Jones, and Clinton, who appeared on many of the Sunday talk shows, were speaking in part to calm the objections from the US military, from Republicans, and from some officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But none of them said that the 2011 date is meaningless.
In coming weeks and months, whetever the news from the battlefield — and all of the new US forces won’t even be in place completely until late summer or fall of 2010 — those opposed to the escalation of the war will have to rally around the 2011 date. For better or worse, that’s the touchstone now, for US Afghan policy. To say that it is “conditions-based” is ridiculous. What does that mean? As in Iraq, proponents of escalation will make the weirdly paradoxical case that if the situation is good in 2011, we can’t withdraw, since the relative stability hinges on the US presence, while if the situation is still violent and out of control, we can’t withdraw, either, since US forces are needed to stabilize things!
One added item regarding Pakistan. Astonishingly, even at the highest levels of the US government, it isn’t known whether Pakistan’s military and the ISI are friends or enemies. From the Times piece:
Many of the intelligence reports ordered by the White House during the review dealt with Pakistan’s stability and whether its military and intelligence services were now committed to the fight or secretly still supporting Taliban factions.
Ultimately, of course, Obama’s decision is based on faulty assumptions, however cerebral Obama’s mind is. He’s made a huge mistake. Perhaps Frank Rich put it best, addressing the troubling nature of Obama’s escalation:
Obama’s speech struck me as the sincere product of serious deliberations, an earnest attempt to apply his formidable intelligence to one of the most daunting Rubik’s Cubes of foreign policy America has ever known. But some circles of hell can’t be squared. What he’s ended up with is a too-clever-by-half pushmi-pullyu holding action that lacks both a credible exit strategy and the commitment of its two most essential partners, a legitimate Afghan government and the American people. Obama’s failure illuminated the limits of even his great powers of reason.