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Gates at the Gates: The Most Important Man in the Afghanistan Debate

As I observed yesterday, one of the ways that the Republicans are going to try to box President Obama in on escalating in Afghanistan is to call for Gen. Stanley McChrystal to testify before Congress in the hopes of getting him on record contradicting Obama. (The Washington Times has a longer piece today on that strategy.) And it’s not just Republicans: Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote a letter on Aug. 13 expressing the same thing. But McChrystal shows no indication of coming to testify. “We’re aware of the calls for testimony, but at this point General McChrystal is not scheduled to return to Washington,” said Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, McChrystal’s spokesman in Kabul. Sholtis reminds that “testimony for him and other senior defense officials is coordinated through the Department of Defense.” And therein lies one of the most important backstories for the Afghanistan escalation debate.

Without hyperbole, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is the crucial swing vote on Afghanistan, and that complicates the argument for escalation in unexpected ways. Over the past several months, Gates has advanced a thoroughly nuanced and judicious number of proposals for Afghanistan. He advocated up to 30,000 additional troops in January, while arguing that the more important move would be to advance Afghan-driven security and publicly fearing that sending any more U.S. troops would push Afghans past a “tipping point” whereby they consider the U.S. to be occupiers. He fired Gen. David McKiernan for reasons that remain somewhat obscure and replaced McKiernan with McChrystal, a move that drew on Gates’ continued close relationship with Gen. David Petraeus, the Central Command chief. He ordered McChrystal to perform a strategy review, then kept it withheld inside the administration as a “pre-decisional” document in order to preserve the administration’s freedom of action, and compounded the move by cleaving McChrystal’s resource requests from the review itself. When it comes to the troop question itself, Gates has said over the last month that McChrystal has mostly persuaded him that Afghan perceptions of occupation depend on U.S. troop actions, not merely troop mass. But he’s also made clear that McChrystal has to make a really solid argument for any such troop increases, as he won’t be a “rubber stamp.”

Gates absolutely cannot be mau-maued as some kind of hippie. He was the defense secretary behind the Iraq troop surge, the man who fired Adm. Fox Fallon, the Central Command chief who vexed Petraeus on Iraq (though not really for that reason), and a prestige member of the non-neocon Republican foreign-policy establishment. His moves at the Pentagon for two and a half years have uniformly been to orient a massive bureaucracy toward supporting the wars it’s actually fighting instead of the theory-driven acquisition schemes that the different services desire. “My attitude [is]: If you’re in a war, it’s all in. I don’t care what we have left over at the end,” Gates told Wired’s Noah Shachtman for a brand-new profile. So when Mr. All-In says there are reasons to be skeptical of going all-in, it’s hard to argue for going all-in.

But even if he can’t be mau-maued, if Gates actually came out against the increase, he would still take heat from the right. But that wouldn’t be a position worthy of a former CIA director. Instead, Gates has placed himself in the best possible position: not an obstacle to a troop increase, but a persuadable skeptic. That means those who are trying to box Obama have to spend time dealing with Gates, and not alienating him. Hence the section of the Kagans’ proposal that spends time arguing that the U.S. doesn’t have to worry about being seen as an occupying power. The last thing escalation advocates want is to be refuted by the Republican defense secretary behind the surge. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has urged Obama not to “Rumsfeld” Afghanistan by declining to send more troops. But when the Anti-Rumsfeld disagrees, that’s the end of that line. Gates has ways of preserving Obama’s freedom of action and keeping everyone in the Pentagon and in Kabul on board. He will fire you if he feels you’re getting out of your lane, as ex-Army Secretary Francis Harvey and the Air Force leadership can all testify.

And so, not surprisingly, when Gates received Skelton’s request for McChrystal’s testimony, the response, delivered through Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, was “The secretary believes his focus and attention should be there and not back here in — in a political process.” That’s Gates’ job. And Gates is succeeding.

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