McChrystal's Ball

Gen. Stanley McChrystal honed his general officer skills in the special forces, where soldiers are taught to do more with less. Today, the commander of American forces in Afghanistan is expected to turn in a comprehensive strategy review to the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. Participants in the review have floated a trial balloon or two, including the likelihood that McChrystal believes that he cannot do the job without thousands more American troops.

The president and his national security team are skittish, but they aren't looking for a way to deny McChrystal what he thinks he needs. It will be quite interesting to see how McChrystal phrases his request. It won't accompany the report -- though the report will probably imply as much.

New troops would be funded by a new congressional appropriation. But the administration has promised to Congress that it would no longer fund the war by submitting supplemental requests, and the Defense Department has already programmed funds for the 2010 fiscal year. They cannot simply move a few billion dollars from here to there. There may not be enough troops, either. Soldiers on long deployments in Iraq will, if this happens, be sent to Afghanistan for another deployment.

So, assuming that the White House doesn't renege on their supplemental promise, the earliest that McChrystal could get his additional troops would be at least a year from now.

And that might be exactly what the White House and the Department of Defense are counting on. After all, the new Afghanistan strategy -- counterterrorism using the means of counterinsurgency -- is still fairly new. As painful as it is, the administration seems to want to give it a chance to succeed.

For the most part, members of Congress are sitting on their hands. They're very skeptical about Afghanistan, but they're also inclined to be patient until public opinion (which is turning against the war) becomes a political force (which it isn't, yet).

By most accounts, the administration has done a poor job explaining to the American people why Afghanistan matters. The president has given two speeches, months apart, and there has been little public follow-through. Senior military officers still use military language to define the objectives; it is not enough to say that America must "deny Al Qaeda a safe haven." Those words don't mean much to the American people anymore, since they were overused, and arguably abused, by the Bush administration.

The administration has yet to cleanly answer this question: "So what if the Taliban win?"

The administration's real concerns are severalfold: 1. Afghanistan would become a haven for terrorists if it is unstable. 2. The dominant American / NATO presence in the region is preferable to a Chinese or Russian presence. 3. Pakistan's nuclear weapons -- the administration seems to have no idea whether to publicly fret about them, or to deny that they're worried. 4. The galvanizing effect that a NATO withdrawal would have on those who wish to do us harm.  5. Obama ran on the premise that Afghanistan was the "smart" war, while Iraq was the "dumb" war. He's committed to it. And the military, once entrenched somewhere, does not like to leave.