General offers right advice in wrong way

October 12, 2009


I feel sorry for Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. The top commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is in hot water.

Recently, he rejected the idea of scaling down U.S. troop levels and fighting al-Qaida there with drones and missiles. Such a strategy shift — which some in the administration are advancing — would be “shortsighted,” he said.

The general’s sin was not that he was wrong — I believe his analysis is correct — but that he spoke in public. He got out ahead of his commander in chief, President Obama, who is reviewing Afghanistan strategy for the second time this year.

Pundits claimed McChrystal was “boxing the president in,” and administration officials cautioned him to give his advice privately, through the chain of command. No doubt the general would have been wiser to do so. Yet the Afghanistan review is taking place in such a backhanded and politicized fashion that I sympathize with his lapse.

When he took office, Obama commissioned a policy review for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He put forward his new strategy in March and repeated it in a speech in August. The goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan. That goal, said Obama, requires preventing a return of Taliban rule to Afghanistan.

In May, Obama sacked his Afghan commander, Gen. David McKiernan, for failing to pursue the strategy aggressively enough. He chose McChrystal to replace him. After arriving in June, the new commander was asked to assess the situation, and someone leaked his pessimistic report to the Washington Post last month.

The general was blunt: The new strategy had to be carried out very differently — and with adequate resources — or it could fail. But his report was much more than a general’s eternal plaint for more troops.

Two points were central. First, the key to our eventual drawdown was to train more Afghan security forces. However, that training would take time; in the interim, NATO forces would have to prevent the Taliban from taking over. This would require more NATO resources, civilian and military.

Second, the general noted, Afghans lacked confidence in the international community’s commitment. “A perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents,” said McChrystal, even though most Afghans dislike the Taliban. We must convince Afghans our commitment is unwavering, he said.

McChrystal worried that “failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.”

And he was clear: “if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban ... Afghanistan could again become a base for terrorism.” Within the U.S. military, there is a strong belief that al-Qaida would move operatives back to Afghanistan if the Taliban took control of large swaths of the country. McChrystal feels the urgency of a situation that is deteriorating fast.

Yet suddenly, last month, a full-blown debate emerged within the administration over whether the Afghan battle is worth fighting. Spurred by the McChrystal report, the debate questioned not only troop levels, but also whether the fight should be waged. It is colored by understandable fears within the administration that the Afghan war may drag down all of Obama’s domestic plans.

Reports have dribbled out that some White House aides believe the war can better be fought with drones and special forces. This ignores the fact that, should the Taliban retake Afghanistan, we would have no ground intelligence for such a strategy. Other Obama officials are reportedly asking whether it matters if the Taliban come back to power.

So I can understand why McChrystal debunked these ideas in response to a questioner at a speech in London. Probably, he was speaking out of frustration. His was not a MacArthur-esque gesture openly challenging a president. This general is trying to carry out Obama’s declared goals.

If the general must button his lip, it would help for senior administration officials to address these key questions, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates did. He spoke on CNN about the danger of a Taliban takeover, saying it would send a hugely empowering message to jihadis worldwide if the Taliban defeated the United States and NATO — just as Afghan militants defeated the Soviet Union.

Let us hope Obama will heed Gates’ warning and listen to McChrystal in private talks.


marcdeveraux 8 years, 8 months ago

How bout just buying the poppy crop from under the taliban? Pay a little more than the taliban, financing dries up for the bad guys ,game over. For far less than the billions going down the drain.Or use killer squads from blackwater to go after the poppy and heroin dealers,either way MUCH cheaper than our military leaders want. The brass just wants wars, they do not care where, the pentagon is taking 50% of our tax dollars now,and would gladly soak us for more.Welfare for the pentagon must end.

tbaker 8 years, 8 months ago

According to CBO, 18.74% of the federal budget is spent on the defense budget. Trust me: the brass wants FEWER wars, not more. America's military is BROKE in just about every objective measure and no one is talking about it. It is way too small for what we are asking of it. Equipment and training readiness levels across all the services is at all-time historic lows. Welfare? Yeah right. You are clueless marcdeveraux. Wise up .

Assuming for a moment we could some how muster the forces to hit all the poppy fields in Afghanistan (we have nothing close to what would be needed) the problem with your course of action is simple: from exactly where do you intend to base the forces you would have carry-out these raids against the drug lords?

If you ignore the government, ignore the Afghan security forces, ignore the population, and devote no effort to counter-insurgency, then the country will quickly descend into complete (as opposed to partial) anarchy. A brand new second lieutenant will tell you this.

When that happens, all land-lines of communication into / out of Afghanistan would be compromised. The end result would be any base left in the country would be 100% dependent on air lift for logistics, which isn't viable. It cannot be done because we do not have anything close to the amount of airlift resources required for such a mission.

What we do have enough for would only sustain a small outpost no where near large enough to have any effect on the drug trade.

We either do a proper counter-insurgency campaign and build a country (where none has ever existed) that can take care of itself and keep radicals and terrorists from using it, or we leave. If we leave, we are losers. We will demoralize our military and embolden the terrorists. The president needs to stop dithering and make a decision.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 8 months ago

Actually, total war (defense) spending accounts for about 54% of the federal budget.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 8 years, 8 months ago

According to Andrew Bacevich (a true conservative)--


"NO SERIOUS person thinks that Afghanistan - remote, impoverished, barely qualifying as a nation-state - seriously matters to the United States. Yet with the war in its ninth year, the passions raised by the debate over how to proceed there are serious indeed. Afghanistan elicits such passions because people understand that in rendering his decision on Afghanistan, President Obama will declare himself on several much larger issues. In this sense, Afghanistan is a classic proxy war, with the main protagonists here in the United States.

The question of the moment, framed by the prowar camp, goes like this: Will the president approve the Afghanistan strategy proposed by his handpicked commander General Stanley McChrystal? Or will he reject that plan and accept defeat, thereby inviting the recurrence of 9/11 on an even larger scale? Yet within this camp the appeal of the McChrystal plan lies less in its intrinsic merits, which are exceedingly dubious, than in its implications.

If the president approves the McChrystal plan he will implicitly:

■ Anoint counterinsurgency - protracted campaigns of armed nation-building - as the new American way of war.

■ Embrace George W. Bush's concept of open-ended war as the essential response to violent jihadism (even if the Obama White House has jettisoned the label "global war on terror'').

■ Affirm that military might will remain the principal instrument for exercising American global leadership, as has been the case for decades."

tbaker 8 years, 8 months ago

Wars are not "defense spending" Bozo. They are congressional spending at the request of the president. DoD didn't ask to go. They were ordered to. If DoD had a choice, we wouldn't be there. They need two or three years to catch their breath, fix broken equipment, fix marriages, and grow. The US military is broke - a fact that doesn't get any serious attention these days.

Like I said, if he decides to stay, he has no choice but to do a proper counter-insurgency campaign. In that event there is no other viable course of action. There is no way to do this on the cheap. Isn't doing exactly that been the chief complaint on the left all these years? We have to work toward the day where the Afghans can take care of themselves. COIN is the only way to do it right. Its hard, ugly, costly, and takes a long time.

If he decides to leave, the US will be perceived as losers on the world stage, just like every other country who has gone into that place and left short of their goals. This will resonate especially well with the Jihadists, and will destroy moral in the US military, not to mention what it will do to our allies or anyone thinking about being our ally.

As it is, Mr. Obama is still using the Bush National Security Strategy. He has yet to produce one of his own. That must be why things are going so poorly. Maybe when he comes out with his NSS, things will improve like he promised.

puddleglum 8 years, 8 months ago

man, let's just buy up a bunch of soviet-era T-72 tanks and go in there and take every one of them. no prisoners, no civilians, just casualties. Then we can say "we won!" the only realistic alternative is to pack up and leave. Let the Taliban re-establish itself and make some nice targets, then go back and disrupt their organization with some cluster bombs, maybe a few marines on the ground with some flamethrowers-just like the good ol' days north of kason. just me and the zippos frying up charlie.

Kontum1972 8 years, 6 months ago

want to finance a conflict.... sell WAR BONDS..i would buy them...it was good for ww2....

Kontum1972 8 years, 6 months ago

put a parachute on dick cheney and HALO him in...that would scare the bad guys....mb they might jihad themselves

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