As the delay in making a decision on troop levels in Afghanistan drags on, it seems increasingly apparent that the problem is not one of strategy but of personalities. The current situation seems like an odd turn of events for an administration that started out so well in its relations with the military. Initially, the President made a series of very smart decisions from retaining Robert Gates as the Secretary of Defense to not immediately rescinding the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to choosing a go-slow exit policy in Iraq. On Afghanistan, it appeared that the White House was being equally measured. The new president asked for his own strategic review back in March. Based on this review, Obama approved a new strategy for that conflict and the sending of some 21,000 additional U.S. troops. In addition, he approved a new commander, General McChrystal, for coalition forces in Afghanistan, someone who was a veteran of the successful counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq.
But then things got tough. When General McChrystal told the administration what the bill would be for the strategy it had endorsed, the president clutched. He called for another strategic review, the third in a year, counting one done by the outgoing Bush Administration. The White House decision to undertake yet another strategic review and statements by the Vice President proposing an alternative strategy to that proposed by the administration’s man on the ground look increasingly like a desire to undercut the sound military advice being offered to the president. Then there’s the sniping from the sidelines by the likes of Senator Carl Levin and most recently, Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and President Obama’s emissary to Afghan President Karzai, who went so far as to call the McChrystal plan “too far, too soon.”
But, General McChrystal is not the only senior military leader pushing for more troops in Afghanistan. First, there is General Petraeus, CENTCOM commander and the architect of the successful Iraq surge. Then there is Admiral Mullin, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the president’s chief military advisor, who is reported to be a strong supporter of McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy. Indeed, there is general agreement among military leaders that McChrystal has it about right.
By delaying his decision on Afghanistan for months while allowing his political minions to pick a public fight with the general chosen for the mission in that country, the White House is risking its relations with the military. As one observer, Peter Feaver, put it in Foreign Policy.com “President Obama is presiding over a slow-motion civil-military crash occasioned by his meandering Afghanistan strategy review.” By choosing the Biden-Kerry strategy over that put forth by his military advisors the president risks appearing as if he does not trust them.
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