‘A Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Moment’

Created: June 30, 2009 18:59 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

Use the initials if you don’t understand, but that was what Gen. Jim Jones, President Obama’s national security adviser, told commanders in Afghanistan would be the president’s reaction if they asked for more troops on top of the 17,000 extra combat troops and 4,000 extra trainers that Obama already ordered to be deployed this year. That’s by way of Bob Woodward’s latest Washington Post piece, which explains that administration thinking on Afghanistan — seconded by several senior officers quoted in the piece — centers on getting resources into the fight that aren’t U.S. troops. Any decision by an administration to cap troop levels in any war is going to be the target of controversy, but it’s important to remember that in January, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate panel that he opposed any troop increase that’s over the levels that the Obama administration has (mostly) provided.

To the chagrin of Michael Cohen, here’s how Woodward recounts a briefing from a well-respected Marine general named Lawrence Nicholson about why the mission isn’t primarily supported by U.S. troops:

At the briefing for Jones, Nicholson pointed to the mission statement, which said, “killing the enemy is secondary.” His campaign plan states, “Protect the populace by, with and through the ANSF,” the Afghanistan National Security Forces, which makes the absence of the additional Afghans particularly galling to Nicholson.

Whether that Afghan troop/cop shortfall can be overcome isn’t the only worry. The so-called “civilian surge” into Afghanistan isn’t happening. Proposals earlier this year for hundreds of new U.S. civilian officials to deploy to Afghanistan have given way to “triage” attempts at getting smaller amounts of key civilian personnel into advisory capacities to bolster Afghan governance.

Minor point. One of the difficulties in reading a Woodward story is that he tends to construct his pieces around the juiciest information rather than the most coherent narrative or the clearest explanation of some of the stakes. As a result, we get Nicholson “seem[ing] to blanch” at the prospect of not getting any more troops and emphasizing that what he really needs is Afghan troops. And we get Jones talking about how Obama doesn’t want to overmilitarize the Afghanistan mission without explaining what properly militarizing a war actually requires. Nowhere is this more acute than in an anecdote about how Jones tries to personally save the job of the Helmand governor, whom U.S. and U.K. troops respect, while telling Afghan reporters, “We want to make sure Afghans control their own destiny.”

Now, it could be that Jones is being arch or that Woodward is being wry. Or it could also be that Afghanistan policy is disconnected and self-deceiving. It’s difficult to tell from the piece.