Inside This Morning’s White House Afghanistan Meeting: Anger With Eikenberry, ‘Beef’ With McChrystal
Thursday, November 12, 2009 at 10:06 am
Update, 8:50 a.m.: I am retracting this post, published yesterday, titled “Inside This Morning’s White House Afghanistan Meeting: Anger With Eikenberry, ‘Beef’ With McChrystal.”
My original source for the post stands by the account provided. The individual, a National Security Council staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity, has provided truthful and verified information on past stories, and so I trusted the source for this one. Elements of the account have been subsequently borne out: yesterday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that President Obama will ask his Afghanistan-Pakistan advisers to provide him with an exit strategy for the eight-year war, which is congruent with but not identical to my source’s information that Obama has asked the team to derive timetables for troop withdrawal.
But there are greater problems with the post. For one, the source was not actually present for the video teleconference that is the post’s central scene, and passed information to me second-hand. Furthermore, not only has the White House’s Tommy Vietor denied, on the record, that Ambassador Karl Eikenberry participated in a video teleconference yesterday morning, but the other two individuals I named as being present for the meeting — the inspector generals for Iraq and Afghanistan — have, through representatives, denied being present. I cannot subsequently stand by this account.
From the start, the post should have a) more clearly indicated that my source wasn’t present at the meeting; b) more clearly indicated that the account provided was single-sourced; and c) verified the information provided before publication. My enthusiasm for a hot story outpaced my professional judgment. For that I take full responsibility, retract the story and issue a full apology for its publication.
Update, 10:57 p.m.: White House spokesman Tommy Vietor says he checked with Amb. Eikenberry’s office and the teleconference call reported in this post did not occur. I am continuing to re-report this story and will update as soon as I have additional information.
It was a tense meeting this morning at the White House, as Ambassador Karl Eikenberry addressed the National Security Council by teleconference from Kabul just hours after the media got hold of his dissent on the crucial question of sending more troops to Afghanistan. “He is very unpopular here,” said a National Security Council staffer who described the meeting.
No one was happy to read in The Washington Post that Eikenberry, who commanded the war himself from 2005 to 2007, thinks that the Karzai government needs to demonstrate its commitment to anti-corruption measures before the administration can responsibly authorize another troop increase. The prevailing theory is that “he leaked his own cables” because “he has a beef with McChrystal,” the staffer said. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Eikenberry’s successor as NATO commander in Afghanistan, has requested an increase in troops to support a counterinsurgency strategy with a substantial counterterrorism component.
But Eikenberry — who also briefed the White House by teleconference yesterday — reiterated his concerns. The ambassador told the NSC not to send additional troops to Afghanistan “without an exit strategy” and urged that the president to adopt a “purely civilian approach” with the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the lead, not the military. According to the NSC staffer, Eikenberry “wants a realignment” of USAID, the Afghanistan inspector general’s office and the State Department’s stabilization and reconstruction office. Eikenberry said President Obama “wants that” — although Obama was not in the meeting — and he hailed the arrival of the new USAID administrator-nominee, Rajiv Shah, “because he will not wage war when the org charts start changing.”
Despite the dissatisfaction with Eikenberry’s apparent leak, according to the staffer, Obama “demanded” an exit strategy for the war “after Eikenberry’s cables.” Certain members of the NSC dialed into the conference from the Fort Bragg, N.C. headquarters of the Joint Special Operations Command, which is playing a large, if underreported, role in shaping Afghanistan strategy. It would appear that much remains fluid in the administration’s strategy debates.
In a late August assessment, McChrystal warned, “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.” Nearly two and a half months have passed since McChrystal’s warning. Eikenberry’s high-profile dissent on a troop increase is likely to aggravate tensions with his former command. Over the summer, McChrystal and Eikenberry worked out a plan for civilian-military cooperation in Afghanistan that “aligns [U.S.] efforts on a single objective: the people of Afghanistan.” Perhaps my information that the two men have a good working relationship is outdated.
Eikenberry appeared on the teleconference with Arnold Fields, the retired Marine general who now serves as special inspector general for the Afghanistan war, who’s also in the country right now checking on how responsibly the U.S. is spending its reconstruction money. A surprise addition to the teleconference: Stuart Bowen, Fields’ counterpart in Iraq. That would suggest that Bowen’s proposal for revamping joint civilian and military action in Afghanistan by creating a new Office of Contingency Operations is getting high-level traction.
Eikenberry’s contribution to the NSC meeting ended at about 9:30 a.m., although the discussion is apparently continuing.
“They are pulling together the alternatives [Obama] requested” on refining options for resourcing the war, the NSC staffer continued. “They have until Friday to give him three new ones with withdrawal timetables.”
Update: This post has been edited for clarity.
Update 2: My apologies. I am told by Fields’ spokeswoman that the Afghanistan inspector-general did not in fact feature in the meeting and is in fact in his Virginia office, not Kabul.
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