The Washington Post’s headline — “McChrystal: More Forces Or ‘Mission Failure’” — does what the persons who leaked Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Afghanistan strategy review evidently wanted to do: box President Obama in to a static request for more U.S. troops and dare him to refuse his chosen commander’s recommendations. The moves to separate the strategy review, conducted for McChrystal by a group of (mostly) Beltway think tank security experts, from the request for resources and the expectation that the resource request will feature more than just that more-troops request may have been designed to keep the ends and means questions distinct, but they also had the effect of preserving Obama’s freedom of action. There’s going to be pressure on Obama to simply accede to any request for more troops, and the media will frame the request, and Obama’s decision, through that prism. So it’s worth remembering that while we’re reading about the strategy review’s details now, Obama read it weeks ago, and still told David Gregory that he refuses to add troops until he’s convinced that the strategy is correct. His advisers surely figured that it would only be a matter of time before the document leaked.
For more on the strategy/resource question within the administration, The Post’s analysis is really amazing, and contains a wealth of detail. It is not clear that the Obama administration will abandon a counterinsurgency campaign, but it is clear that new strategic facts have caused the administration to question whether it’s over-committing itself to Afghan governance:
The principal game-changer, in the view of White House officials, was Afghanistan’s presidential election last month, which was compromised by fraud, much of it in support of President Hamid Karzai. Although the results have not been certified, he almost certainly will remain in office, but under a cloud of illegitimacy that could complicate U.S. efforts to promote good governance.
This, it’s worth remembering, was also a game-changer for Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security, one of the advisers to McChrystal’s strategy review, who wondered if historians will remember the election as the moment when “we should have cut the cord on the Afghan government.” Counterinsurgency doesn’t require nation-building. But it’s fair to ask whether the Obama administration’s expansive rhetorical commitments to Afghanistan from the start — escalating most recently with Obama’s “war of necessity” line in August — preordained such a thing. If anything, the administration is in a position of trying to calibrate how much state-building, as opposed to nation-building (state-building focuses on indirect strengthening of host-nation institutions while nation-building is a set of governance and economic actions done *for *that host nation), is enough and how much is not enough. That’s perilously subjective.
There is also starting to be some tension between McChrystal and Obama’s people. From The Post:
“Who’s to say we need more troops?” this official said. “McChrystal is not responsible for assessing how we’re doing against al-Qaeda.”
True, and sure to be read with acrimony in Kabul. Just like this is sure to be read with acrimony in Washington:
But Obama’s deliberative pace — he has held only one meeting of his top national security advisers to discuss McChrystal’s report so far — is a source of growing consternation within the military. “Either accept the assessment or correct it, or let’s have a discussion,” one Pentagon official said. “Will you read it and tell us what you think?” Within the military, this official said, “there is a frustration. A significant frustration. A serious frustration.”
McChrystal can’t be faulted for presuming that Obama’s commitment in March to a counterinsurgency campaign for a counterterrorism goal meant he should interpret counterinsurgency as broadly as he could or pursue it as aggressively as he could. Nor can the administration be faulted for worrying that such commitments push the means into overtaking the ends they’re supposed to yield. And the public can’t be faulted for turning away from a war that exhibits such strategic drift. But the leak of the strategy review means it’s now harder for everyone to make rational decisions without worrying whether their bureaucratic adversaries are going to undermine them in the media.