Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Song Remains the Same: Obama vs. the Pentagon

This reminds me a lot of what we saw in the 1990s WRT Clinton and the military. Whether it was DADT or Bosnia, mistrust and second guessing (in both directions) clouded the relationship and occasionally harmed American foreign policy, like the time Colin Powell wrote a letter to the editor in the NYT predicting that a military operation designed to stop 100,000 Bosnian Muslims from being raped, tens of thousands from being murdered and hundreds of thousands from being locked in death camps would certinally turn into a quaqmire from which there would be no escape.*

*We subsequently won the war in 2 weeks. It was the closest Powell ever came to being right.

So now it begins again. Last week somebody had the temerity to ask General McChrystal his thoughts on the probability that various strategies being bandied about may succeed or fail. And he had the audacity to answer honestly and objectively, based on nothing more than his 20+ years of professional experience and the most up-to-date orders he has received from his commander and chief.

The Obama/McChrystal plan is classic counterinsurgency and focuses on protecting the Afghan population while strengthening Afghan security forces and government. McChrystal was asked about a "counterterrorism" strategy that would purportedly contain al-Qaeda with much lower numbers of American troops, casualties and other costs. McChrystal did not try to force the president's hand on whether to increase the foreign troop presence in Afghanistan. The general critiqued an option that is at direct odds with Obama's policy and conflicts with the experiences of the U.S. military this decade. That is not fundamentally out of line for a commander.

It important to remember in this debate that Obama has not made any official decision on a new strategy for Afghanistan. As far as anybody knows, Obama still plans to fight "the good war" and beat the Taliban.

But that hasn't stopped the cadre of armchair commandos from trying to muzzle the opinion of the professional.

McChrystal's view -- that a strategy employing fewer resources, in pursuit of more limited goals, would be "short-sighted" -- is something the White House needs to hear. He is, after all, the man Obama put in charge in Afghanistan, and it would be absurd not to take his analysis of the situation into account. But McChrystal is out of line in trying to sell his position publicly, as he did last week in a speech in London
I don't think McChrystal was trying to "sell" his idea so much as he was trying to give an honest answer to an honest question. For what its worth, his answer was almost identical to the answers I heard from a room full of experts- civilian, military, and retired military - only a few days before.

 It's clear that one thing that is happening here is that Obama, once again, is asking a question publicly without knowing the answer ahead of time. McChrystal wasn't sitting in his HQ in Afghanistan inventing cold fusion or something; his formula for troop increases was based on a careful study of both a history of COIN, stretching back to Indian fighting on the frontier, and the current reality on the ground and the nature of the Pashtun insurgents and AQ. The bottom line: Obama should have had a pretty good idea about what McChrystal was going to recommend before he even asked for the recommendation, and if he knew he wasn't going to want to increase troops he should have said so upfront. If he knew he was going to outsource his grand strategy to Biden, he should have said so as well.

It's also clear and unfortunate that this debate reflects residual antipathy that arose between the military and American liberals/Leftists during the Vietnam war. The animosity between  those in uniform and their civilian commanders created a "stabbed in the back" myth that took hold within the officer corps in the shadow of Vietnam and led the military to completely forsake its COIN capability in favor of the Powell doctrine so as to avoid ever being betrayed by the politicians again.

I just hope Obama realizes that his actions in the next few months will continue to affect policy long after he has been impeached for losing the war left office.


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