If you are old enough to remember the George W. Bush Administration and the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns, you will recall that a favorite theme of critics of Bush's war management was that Bush hadn't listened to Army brass asking for more troops in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. In particular, the Democrats practically made a secular saint of General Eric Shinseki, who supposedly was fired for delivering this message. (The truth is rather different, but the media has been printing the legend for so long it's hardly worth the candle at this late date to argue the point). Gen. Shinseki even ended up being given a Cabinet post in the Obama Administration for little other reason than as a symbol that Obama would break from his predecessor by following his subordinates' recommendations.
Well, as we so often have reason to say of Obama's campaign rhetoric, that was then and this is now. And we are learning that listening to requests from his commanders for more troops is not Obama's strong suit as Commander-in-Chief.
First, Obama scaled back the U.S. troop commitment. Obama during the campaign had promised more troops for Afghanistan, where the U.S. had approximately 36,000 troops and was relying heavily on training the Afghan military to supplement U.S. and NATO forces. In November 2008, Defense Secretary Robert Gates had indicated that some 30,000 troops would be sent to Afghanistan, and the 30,000 figure was requested by General David McKiernan, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan (he reports to General David Petraeus). Instead, Obama reduced the force to some 17,000 additional U.S. counterinsurgency troops - barely more than half what General McKiernan had requested - plus an additional 7,000 troops for other functions. But Obama's national security advisor, General James Jones, bluntly warned the military brass that further requests for more troops would upset the White House:
Now suppose you're the president, Jones told them, and the requests come into the White House for yet more force. How do you think Obama might look at this? Jones asked, casting his eyes around the colonels. How do you think he might feel?
Jones let the question hang in the air-conditioned, fluorescent-lighted room. Nicholson and the colonels said nothing.
Well, Jones went on, after all those additional troops, 17,000 plus 4,000 more, if there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have "a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment." Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF - which in the military and elsewhere means "What the [expletive]?"
Obama, despite overruling his commander's request for more troops, trumpeted this as a step towards fully supporting the mission in Afghanistan:
"This increase is necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires," Obama said.
In a major address on August 17 (Obama gives a "major address" a few times a week) to the VFW, Obama underlined this commitment and the centrality of the Afghan theater:
By moving forward in Iraq, we're able to refocus on the war against al Qaeda and its extremist allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That's why I announced a new, comprehensive strategy in March -- a strategy that recognizes that al Qaeda and its allies had moved their base from the remote, tribal areas -- to the remote, tribal areas of Pakistan. This strategy acknowledges that military power alone will not win this war -- that we also need diplomacy and development and good governance. And our new strategy has a clear mission and defined goals: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies.
In the months since, we have begun to put this comprehensive strategy into action. And in recent weeks, we've seen our troops do their part. They've gone into new areas -- taking the fight to the Taliban in villages and towns where residents have been terrorized for years. They're adapting new tactics, knowing that it's not enough to kill extremists and terrorists; we also need to protect the Afghan people and improve their daily lives. And today, our troops are helping to secure polling places for this week's election so that Afghans can choose the future that they want.
Now, these new efforts have not been without a price. The fighting has been fierce. More Americans have given their lives. And as always, the thoughts and prayers of every American are with those who make the ultimate sacrifice in our defense.
As I said when I announced this strategy, there will be more difficult days ahead. The insurgency in Afghanistan didn't just happen overnight and we won't defeat it overnight. This will not be quick, nor easy. But we must never forget: This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is a -- this is fundamental to the defense of our people.
And going forward, we will constantly adapt to new tactics to stay ahead of the enemy and give our troops the tools and equipment they need to succeed. And at every step of the way, we will assess our efforts to defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies, and to help the Afghan and Pakistani people build the future that they seek.
As for McKiernan, he was unceremoniously sacked in May, replaced by General Stanley McChrystal, who had worked for Gen. Petraeus in carrying out the counterinsurgency "surge" in Iraq. Was McKiernan being punished for requesting more troops than Obama was willing to provide? Was his replacement a power play by Gen. Petraeus to put his own man in charge? From an outsider's remove, we can't know, we can only look at what happened next.
And what happened was that on August 30, Gen. McChrystal delivered a similar message to that of his predecessor: the latest renewed Taliban offensive requires more American troops to prevent a Taliban victory in the war the Taliban started with us on September 11, 2001:
The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan warns in an urgent, confidential assessment of the war that he needs more forces within the next year and bluntly states that without them, the eight-year conflict "will likely result in failure," according to a copy of the 66-page document obtained by The Washington Post.
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal says emphatically: "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."
Some Afghans took us seriously. And the value of an American promise is now being weighed. If we run out the clock, if we rescind our commitment, regardless of president or party or poll, the world will be watching and they, too, will take away "lessons learned."
The McChrystal assessment is an echo of Winston Churchill's message to President Roosevelt. "Give us the tools and we will finish the job."
This is President Obama's FDR moment.
General Petraeus, for his part, took to the London Times on Friday to echo McChrystal's assessment of the situation and the importance of the mission:
General Stan McChrystal, the Commander of Nato's International Security Assistance Force, who has spent most of his career since 9/11 leading the US’s most elite counterterrorist element, the Joint Special Operations Command, is employing a comprehensive, counterinsurgency campaign. He is the first to recognise not just the extraordinary capabilities but also the limitations of counterterrorism forces in Afghanistan.
In addition to our military operations we are helping the Afghan Government to combat the corruption that has undermined the legitimacy of certain Afghan institutions. We are also working hard to accelerate the development of the Afghan security forces. And we are working to disrupt narcotics trafficking by promoting agricultural alternatives and developing the infrastructure to help Afghan farmers to get their products to market.
But we need to be realistic in recognising that the campaign will require a sustained, substantial commitment. Many tough tasks loom before us - including resolution of the way ahead after the recent election, which obviously has been marred by allegations of fraud. The challenges in Afghanistan clearly are significant. But the stakes are high. And, while the situation unquestionably is, as General McChrystal has observed, serious, the mission is, as he has affirmed, still doable.
So, is the Obama Administration keeping its promise to listen to the brass? Word came down yesterday that the White House has indeed had the predicted "WTF" moment, and the Administration is pushing McChrystal to shut up and back off:
The Pentagon has told its top commander in Afghanistan to delay submitting his request for additional troops, defense officials say, amid signs that the Obama administration is rethinking its strategy for combating a resurgent Taliban
Military officials familiar with the matter say [McChrystal's] report lays out several options, including one that seeks roughly 40,000 reinforcements, which would push the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to more than 100,000 for the first time.
But the commander has been told to delay submitting the troop request to the Pentagon at the direction of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other top civilian officials, according to defense officials.
The administration’s call for a further strategic review - which official said could take weeks - comes as military commanders in the field say the campaign is running out of time and U.S. congressional and public support for the war is flagging.
The military commanders are reportedly distressed at this foot-dragging and wondering if Obama is really committed to victory as he claims. A split is widening between them and the civilian leadership, while John Kerry - who was so certain five years ago what had to be done in Afghanistan - now says we need time to figure out what's going on in a war that's now entering its ninth year.
In fact, so deep is the split that word is circulating that General McChrystal is threatening to resign if he doesn't get the troops he feels he needs. H/T. Which, if it came to pass, would mean having to pick a third NATO commander for Afghanistan in Obama's first year as Commander-in-Chief. Even House Democratic leadership is alarmed enough to want to hear McChrystal tell his side of the story:
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is backing Republican calls for Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the ground commander in Afghanistan, to testify before Congress about troop increases and strategy shifts in the war.
"I think it would be useful at some point in time for Gen. McChrystal to share with Congress, both the Senate and the House, his views and proposals," Hoyer told reporters Tuesday morning.
Who is right? It is true, as
Churchill Clemenceau once said, that war is too important to be left to the generals. It is also true, as wartime leaders have known since time immemorial, that generals always want more troops, the troops always want more equipment, and both always want more weapons. Civilian leadership can't blindly follow; it has to lead. And in fact, in Afghanistan as in Iraq, there are always competing considerations between adding more troops to increase our capabilities, and keeping a lighter footprint to avoid antagonizing the locals and to allow the indigenous military to shoulder some responsibilities. The critics on the Left - Obama and Kerry included - never, ever gave a moment's thought to these considerations in criticizing the Bush Administration.
But in Barack Obama we have not only a president who came to office pledging to pay more attention to his military leaders, and not only one who keeps insisting that the mission in Afghanistan is one of urgent importance to U.S. national security, but also a man with absolutely zero prior experience as an executive, no military service record, and zero experience with national security issues. One might reasonably expect him to permit an open exchange of views by his commanders and to give very, very serious weight to their opinions, rather than telling people to withdraw recommendations and running through generals like George Steinbrenner through managers. Instead, it looks as if the only reaction a serious person can have to watching Obama's management of the military is Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.