Long knives out in Washington over Afghanistan

You can criticize Bob Woodward– and I have– for the insidery, back-scratching nature of most of his recent journalism. But he still manages to pull out a significant number of real news items.
Wow! In today’s WaPo, he has a piece describing a document (PDF) that was most likely leaked to him by someone on the staff of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top US general in Afghanistan, in which McC warned that

    he needs more forces within the next year and bluntly states that without them, the eight-year conflict ‘will likely result in failure.’

The leaked document was sent by McChrystal to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on August 30, under the title “COMISAF’S INITIAL ASSESSMENT”. (COMISAF is the acronym for “Commander of the [US-led] International Security Assistance Force”.)
I have not had time to pore over the PDF version yet. But Woodward and various other writers at the WaPo evidently have done so. The PDF version posted on the WaPo website is one for which they received a security clearance after certain portions were removed.
An accompanying article by Rajiv Chadrasekaran and Karen DeYoung gives an account of some– but certainly far from all– of the political context within the Obama administration, within which someone took the decision to leak this very sensitive document to Woodward.
Chandra and DeYoung write,

    From his headquarters in Kabul, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal sees one clear path to achieve President Obama’s core goal of preventing al-Qaeda from reestablishing havens in Afghanistan: “Success,” he writes in his assessment, “demands a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign.”
    Inside the White House, the way forward in Afghanistan is no longer so clear.
    Although Obama endorsed a strategy document in March that called for “executing and resourcing an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy,” there have been significant changes in Afghanistan and Washington since then. A disputed presidential election, an erosion in support for the war effort among Democrats in Congress and the American public, and a sharp increase in U.S. casualties have prompted the president and his top advisers to reexamine their assumptions about the U.S. role in defeating the Taliban insurgency.
    Instead of debating whether to give McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, more troops, the discussion in the White House is now focused on whether, after eight years of war, the United States should vastly expand counterinsurgency efforts along the lines he has proposed — which involve an intensive program to improve security and governance in key population centers — or whether it should begin shifting its approach away from such initiatives and simply target leaders of terrorist groups who try to return to Afghanistan.

And then, they have this devastating put-down of McChrystal:

    McChrystal’s assessment, in the view of two senior administration officials, is just “one input” in the White House’s decision-making process.

They add:

    Obama, appearing on several Sunday-morning television news shows, left little doubt that key assumptions in the earlier White House strategy are now on the table. “The first question is: Are we doing the right thing?” the president said on CNN. “Are we pursuing the right strategy?”
    “Until I’m satisfied that we’ve got the right strategy, I’m not going to be sending some young man or woman over there — beyond what we already have,” Obama said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” If an expanded counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan contributes to the goal of defeating al-Qaeda, “then we’ll move forward,” he said. “But, if it doesn’t, then I’m not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or . . . sending a message that America is here for the duration.”

I have a few quick reactions to this important news:

    1. I am really glad that Obama is looking at a range of options other than trying to continue the effort to mount a countrywide “counter-insurgency” campaign in Afghanistan that would also involve trying to build a functioning state system in the whole of that very complicated country.
    2. In the range of other options he’s looking at, he should certainly be looking at options that involve bringing other significant international partners into the operation rather than just, as at present, members of the NATO alliance. NATO is so much the wrong implement through which to be acting in Afghanistan, for the reasons I’ve blogged about a lot here over recent months. Other powers, located much closer to Afghanistan, have both (a) a much stronger direct interest in seeing some form sustainable stabilization take root there than members of distant NATO do, and (b) much greater capability– in terms of being both geographically and culturally closer to Afghanistan– to act effectively there. These nations include China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan (which has its own problems, of course), and most of the other Central Asian nations. The UN would seem to be so much the most appropriate body to convene and lead this new form of help for Afghanistan.
    3. Of course this would signal– and be a part of– a much broader shift in the balance of power in world politics between “the west and the rest.” But this shift is happening, anyway.
    4. Very evidently there is a huge, deep, and significant debate within the Obama administration over whether to continue with a “COIN”-only approach, or not. Chandra and DeYoung indicate that this seems to pit some military commanders (McChrystal and Chairman of the JCS Adm. Mike Mullen) against the civilian leadership in the White House.
    5. Unmentioned thus far have been the views of Gen. Petraeus, the highly political general who as head of CENTCOM is McChrystal’s immediate superior and thus stands between him and Mullen in the chain of command. Unknown also is the position in this tussle of Secdef Gates.
    6. All of the above people serve, of course, at the pleasure of our elected president. But a pointed resignation of any one of them, if he should disagree with the decision that Obama eventually makes, would be a major political blow to Obama. That gives all of them clout– but probably Gates and Petraeus the most clout of all.
    7. The leaking of McChrystal’s assessment seems very like a move to cover the rear-end of the military leaders in the– increasingly much more likely– event that the US/NATO “mission” in Afghanistan ends up in some degree of defeat, ignominy, chaos, or worse. Woodward tells us that McChrystal’s assessment concluded by saying, “While the situation is serious, success is still achievable.” But if McChrystal or anyone in his office had anything to do with the leaking of the document, then that act would indicate that the leaker really did not not judge “success” to be very likely at all.
    8. Woodward’s acquisition and leaking of this document are a reminder of the big journalistic coup of his early career in the 1970s, when he and Carl Bernstein leaked details of the dirty tricks President Nixon used against the Democrats during the Watergate affair. But they have more in common, substance-wise, with the 1971 leaking to the NYT of the “Pentagon Papers”, an internal Pentagon assessment that pointed to the unwinnability of the US-Vietnam War.

Anyway, the leak of the McChrystal assessment is a huge story. Chapeau to Woodward.

3 thoughts on “Long knives out in Washington over Afghanistan

  1. Pangloss

    You missed the really important story up at Tomdispatch yesterday by Ann Jones. If nothing else it’s good for a real laugh at the tomfoolery that’s been and likely will continue to go on over in dust haven: http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml
    Oh shouldn’t Obama now fire McChrystal to finally show someone, gads anyone, who’s the POTUS.

  2. Steve Connors

    There isn’t anything new in this report except McC’s repeated assertion that not coming up with the bodies he demands would almost certainly lead to failure. That is an entirely predictable claim.
    Leaks have one thing in common: an agenda on the part of those doing the leaking. But BW’s piece doesn’t in any way address this – or even the possibility that someone, somewhere, for some reason is using Woodward and the Washington Post just as they were used by Mark Felt over Watergate. At least Woodward and Bernstein then had the excuse of youth.
    Obama is staring into a trap. The international community has monumentally failed to deliver in Afghanistan and, rather than accept the consequences of that reality, one more throw of the dice is being demanded. Spending tens of billions of dollars on development – the only possible way of redeeming this shameful lack of competence – is not even on the table so the discussion only centers around troop levels and military tactics. Obama knows this and so does the Pentagon. He can’t sell the development costs in Washington and he doesn’t believe in the military option – the champions of which posit a combination of the most pessimistic projections (nuclear armed Talib’s) with the most optimistic readings of the possibilities of counter-insurgency tactics. Failure in this is inevitable and the buck stops where?
    You ask where is Gen P? Beginning his campaign for 2012 is my guess.

  3. Alexno

    bringing other significant international partners into the operation
    Do you really think that’s a good idea? The Russians and Chinese are not likely to be any better, nor a neutral “peace-keeping” force. Much better to leave the Afghans alone to sort themselves out.
    Certainly that’s the best solution for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Once there’s no external pressure, the drive for religious extremism will also disappear.

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