President Obama’s speech at West Point on December 1 made a very strong case for expanding U.S. and NATO military operations in Afghanistan and for sending 30,000 more troops to that country. After weeks of uncertainty, it seemed as if the president had accepted in principle the recommendations of his senior military advisors. The one false note was the promise that troops would begin to pull out by July 2011 — less than a year after the last of the additional troops would begin their deployment. But this may have been an attempt to bridge the differences between proponents and opponents of the surge. Virtually all criticism of this seeming flaw in the president’s plan was silenced by the welter of statements made in the following weeks by senior national security officials that any withdrawal would be determined by conditions on the ground and could be extremely small. Several senior leaders asserted that we would be in Afghanistan for years to come.
However, recent press reports suggest that rather than creating a consensus within the Administration, the Afghanistan surge continues to divide it. Yesterday’s Washington Post reported that military and civilian leaders had very different views of the surge’s purpose and the meaning of the July 2011 date. According to the article, “members of Obama’s war cabinet disagree over the meaning of his pledge to begin drawing down forces in July 2011 and whether the mission has been narrowed from a proposal advanced by McChrystal in his August assessment of the war.” The nature of these disagreements suggests a growing rift between the Administration’s civilian and military leaders. The president’s effort to split the difference between his advisors or to give something to everyone by adding troops and then rapidly taking them away appears to be backfiring.
What some characterized as President Obama’s pragmatic approach to problem solving looks increasingly like poor leadership. Perhaps his problem is that he has never led anything larger than the staff of a senate office. So he doesn’t understand that formulating policies with conflicting elements gives every faction in the Administration the license to pursue their own agendas. The president’s White House advisors want the emphasis placed on ensuring that a pullout can begin on the specified date regardless of the surge’s success. The military, including it seems Secretary of Defense Gates, seem to be focusing on creating the conditions that would justify initiating a drawdown. These differing views of the strategy naturally produce diametrically opposed ideas of the objectives to be pursued and the ways available means, including the additional 30,000 troops, should be employed.
The danger is that the ability to shape events in the so-called Af-Pak region and, as a result, control over the decision on the use of American military power, will slip away from the president. The commitment of 30,000 U.S. troops prompted NATO allies to commit an additional 7,000 soldiers. The White House now has an obligation to assure not only the American people but our allies that the additional blood and treasure invested in Afghanistan will not be wasted. He has a similar responsibility to the government of Pakistan, particularly if that country makes a good faith effort to deal with the Taliban and Al Qaeda on its side of the border. So how can the White House direct the commanders in Afghanistan not to do their utmost to defeat the Taliban because we are only really committed in that country through July 2011? But if the president lets them do what they think is militarily necessary this inevitably means a wider war. How can the President contain his military leaders who obviously want to succeed in Afghanistan? This sounds more and more like Vietnam.
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