Obama vs. the generals: brewing conflict over troop increase in Afghanistan

 In Afghanistan

Thanks to the leaking of General McChrystal’s confidential assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, we can be assured that the anticipated request for more troops will be forthcoming, with full-throated support from military commanders.

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.”

This assessment is contingent on the idea that the right approach for Afghanistan is intensifying a counterinsurgency strategy with a focus on protecting the population. He states, “ISAF personnel must be seen as guests of the Afghan people and their government, not an occupying army.” It’s unclear how he expects to shift perceptions with a military-heavy strategy after eight years of occupation with little improvement to show for it, and thousands of people like this young girl who shakes with fear every time she hears an airplane after a US airstrike killed her entire immediate family.  It’s no surprise to hear McChrystal say, “Afghan social, political, economic, and cultural affairs are complex and poorly understood. ISAF does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population.”

To whom did McChrystal turn to develop a proposal for a new strategy that better understands these dynamics? Glenn Greenwald gives us the disconcerting (but unfortunately not surprising) answer:

The “strategic review” brought together a dozen smart (mostly) think-tankers with little expertise in Afghanistan but a general track record of supporting calls for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy.  They set up shop in Afghanistan for a month working in close coordination with Gen. McChrystal, and emerged with a well-written, closely argued warning that the situation is dire and a call for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy. Shocking.

The link he provides is to this list of think tank “experts” who worked on McChrystal’s review, including the standard group of America’s war-justifying theorists:  the Kagans, a Brookings representative, Anthony Cordesman, someone from Rand, etc. etc.  What would a group of people like that ever recommend other than continued and escalated war?  It’s what they do.

While McChrystal is certain the (ever-shifting) mission will fail, he certainly can’t guarantee success with more troops—unless maybe he’s using Ambassador Holbrooke’s definition of success as “we’ll know it when we see it.”

Fortunately, McChrystal’s assessment is reportedly just “one input, one very important input, into a larger conversation that the president is having about on where we go on Afghanistan.”  Obama expressed a healthy dose of skepticism about whether an increase in troops is the right approach in his interview marathon on Sunday:

“Until I’m satisfied that we’ve got the right strategy I’m not gonna be sending some young man or woman over there — beyond what we already have,” Obama said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I’m not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or, in some way – you know, sending a message that America is here for the duration.”

U.S. generals are preparing to seek as many as tens of thousands additional troops for the increasingly unpopular conflict, but in several of his five Sunday talk show interviews, Obama made clear that he’s far from convinced about the need for a massive infusion of troops and won’t be rushed on the decision.

“We’re going to test whatever resources we have against our strategy, which is, if by sending young men and women into harm’s way, we are defeating al Qaeda–and that can be shown to a skeptical audience, namely me, somebody who is always asking hard questions about deploying troops— then we will do what’s required to keep the American people safe,” Obama said on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Obama also said he suspects there is a predisposition among some military planners to think more troops is the answer to almost any problem.

“There is a natural inclination to say, ‘If I get more, then I can do more,’” Obama said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But right now, the question is—the first question is, are we doing the right thing? Are we pursuing the right strategy?”

“We’re not going to put the cart before the horse and just think by sending more troops we’re automatically going to make Americans safe,” Obama told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Of course, the military commanders have a number of dubious allies in their quest for more troops. John McCain tweeted (does anyone believe he actually tweets?) that “we need a decision now!” and Republicans are likely to take the idea of Obama denying resources to the military and run with it. The geniuses at Project for a New American Century, who helped bring you the Iraq debacle, have rebranded themselves as the Foreign Policy Initiative and are kicking off a two-day conference to build support for a troop increase in Afghanistan.

Thankfully there are people on the other side of the debate who can pressure President Obama not to cave to this misguided approach and support him in pursuit of a new strategy. Members of Congress have raised concerns about sending in additional troops, and they fall outside the range of usual suspects. Sens. Carl Levin, Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Jane Harman and Nancy Pelosi have all spoken out recently against throwing more troops at this problem. Having seen reluctance to raise questions about Afghanistan in dozens of congressional lobby visits this year, I can say that this is a significant shift and hopefully the beginning of a trend.  This new outspokenness is no doubt linked to polls that show public support for the war in Afghanistan waning, with 56% of Americans opposed to sending more troops.

This is a critical moment for those of us who have been pushing for nonmilitary strategy to raise our voices and keep the momentum going for a new approach. This is the biggest opening we have had this year, with the confluence of events in Afghanistan, the public and Congress. Obama is reportedly setting meetings about Afghanistan policy over the next few weeks, so let’s keep the pressure coming. Click here to tell Congress to say no to more troops in Afghanistan.

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