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Afghanistan vs. Iraq: The Remix

At the bottom of Ann Scott Tyson’s Washington Post piece about Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s assessment of the Afghanistan war is a bit of contradiction-heightening from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

In an interview with The Washington Post last week, Mullen said it might not be possible to fill requests from McChrystal for new troops.

If the demand for troops in Afghanistan goes up and is not offset by reductions in Iraq, it would delay the ability of the Army and Marine Corps to give heavily deployed ground troops more time at home between combat tours.

“That’s a huge concern that I have,” Mullen said in the interview. He noted that the concern was shared by Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, as well as by other service chiefs.

The irony! The sheer, stupendous, absurd irony! Afghanistan was an under-resourced mission for years, all this time neglected by the Bush administration and reporters like myself in favor of the entirely-elective Iraq occupation, and now comes a warning from Adm. Mullen — which, by the way, I’m not sure the Post printed last week, though I may have missed something — that the Iraq pullout would need to accelerate in order to supply a second Afghanistan troop increase this year. Sensible enough, in theory — there are only so many soldiers and Marines and intelligence assets and equipment and material and support staff and so on; and the laws of physics suggest they can’t be in two places at once; and overtaxing the ground force is expressly counterproductive to U.S. aims in either theater. Now, you could do what the Bush administration did, and insist loudly that there are no trade-offs to be made and we can do it all — and I truly can’t wait for the Peter Feaver post telling me that that never happened — but that would be irresponsible.

Assume Mullen and the chiefs are correct. As a political question, I wonder how this will play out. No matter what he chooses, Obama will be criticized by the right, so bake that into the cake. The question is whether he wants to be criticized for underresourcing the Afghanistan mission he’s called a “war of necessity” or wants to be criticized for gambling with what he’s called a “responsible” way out of Iraq at a time when civilian deaths are spiking. Will anti-escalation liberals find a pretext to support a measured pace of withdrawal from Iraq? How will Gen. Raymond Odierno react to having his very staggered withdrawal plans mucked with because of Gen. McChrystal? How will Gen. David Petraeus adjudicate such a tension, should it manifest itself?

It’s almost like it’s inherently problematic to wage two protracted wars at the same time…

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