Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Big Afghanistan Strategy Rendezvous

I was at East Potomac Golf Course yesterday afternoon when a bunch of military helicopters flew by overhead. I remarked to my playing companions that it was probably Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen headed to the White House for the afternoon Afghanistan discussion. They looked at me like I was sharing top secret information rather than readily available news, but it goes to show that even in DC, where "everyone" is enthralled with the ongoing Afghanistan strategy debate, "everyone" is really just a few of the wonkiest of us.
To recap, so far General McChrystal is arguing for an intensive population-centric counterinsurgency strategy, including an increase of probably 40,000 U.S. troops. Vice President Joe Biden continues to advocate for a troop draw down and a focus on counter terrorism and targeting al Qaeda leadership. President Obama has gathered the usual suspects for regular discussions in hopes of coming up with a coherent strategy. While I have been calling for a defined and articulated end goal and strategy since at least several things we introduced as strategies ago, I applaud the effort now as better late than never, assuming in the end we come up with an actual strategy. So what if it took the farce of an Afghan election to cast doubt on the idea of the Afghanistan government taking over smoothly in a few years and keeping Afghanistan stable, at least we're now discussing it.
Last week Fred Kaplan brought up two key questions the strategy team should answer:
First, is Afghan President Hamid Karzai likely to rally the support of his own people, especially given the massive fraud in the recent election? (If he doesn't rally this support, counterinsurgency is doomed to fail; this, the top U.S. military leaders acknowledge.)
Second, given the vast amount of blood, treasure, and time that a COIN campaign requires under the best of circumstances, are the prospective benefits worth the cost?
And today Marc Lynch countered with five questions of his own. I think all of those questions are important, and I hope they are being discussed in the room, but my big concern is what the end goal is for Afghanistan. The major difference I see between us and the British and Soviets - and hopefully the reason we can succeed where they failed - is that we do not want to occupy Afghanistan any longer than necessary. The goal is for us to withdraw from an Afghanistan that no longer harbors a threat to the world, and I hope the team takes that long term a view of the problem.
It only added to the turmoil when General McChrystal mentioned that he had only ever talked to President Obama once since taking over, and has advocated for his counterinsurgency campaign (which he falsely calls a strategy) in recent talks and media interviews he has done. This has led to debates about whether the field commander should be playing politics and pushing his agenda through the media rather than going through the chain of command. Some have interpreted this as pulling a MacArthur, others have defended him. Obama has yet to pull a Truman in '51 - though he would be justified since McChrystal to me is undermining his Commander in Chief and clearly has said his piece - but was smacked down by Secretary Gates. McChrystal was put in place over General McKiernan because he could supposedly think in bigger and more flexible ways, but so far only seems to follow the COIN orthodoxy.
I'm glad the Afghanistan strategy debate is happening, both behind closed doors and out in the public. It's about bloody time, and by that I mean it's about eight years too late. But McChrystal needs to contribute through the chain of command, the way he has his entire career. I know he's an unconventional warrior, but he can't ambush the President. The principals need to go into the room and spend as much time as necessary, but when they come out they need to speak with one voice, believe it, and execute it. If McChrystal can't get on board if the decision doesn't go his way he will need to be sent home.

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