Boxed Into A Corner On Afghanistan, The President Resists

As he made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, President Obama made one thing clear when asked about whether he'd send more troops to Afghanistan: the question was moot because Gen. Stanley McChrystal, his top commander in Afghanistan, hadn't yet asked requested any more troops.

But in McChrystal's confidential assessment, which was leaked to the Washington Post this weekend, the general makes clear his intention: "Broadly speaking, we require more Civilian and military resources, more ANSF, and more ISR and other enablers."

In plain language, that sounds like a request for more troops.
And so now, the president has been taken hostage, thanks to the leaker -- and it must have been an experienced leaker, because the timing was exquisite. So long as there is deniability -- so long as the White House exercised control over the framing of the report -- the president retained some measure of control over the political balance.  Whoever leaked the document decided that the Commander in Chief did not deserve the latitude that he had claimed. The colloquial term for this in Washington is, and you'll pardon me, that the president was ratfucked.

An administration official pointed to several sentences in the review that prioritize fleshing out of a new strategy, including this line from the executive summary: "Additional resources are required, but focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely. The key take away from this assessment is the urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way that we think and operate." But Obama bears some responsibility for the predicament he is in. During the presidential campaign, he called Afghanistan the "good war." He repeatedly promised to give "commanders on the ground" the utmost consideration. In March, he announced what he called a "new strategy," one that called on NATO to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. "That's the goal that must be achieved."

Leaving aside the real constraints of domestic politics -- a skeptical Democratic Congress and a war-weary public, the heart of the internal administration conflict is whether a plausible Afghanistan strategy exists in universe.  Simply put, the White House -- principally Vice President Biden and Gen. James Jones -- don't want to commit more troops to the region unless they can prevent the Taliban from taking over the government, now and in the future. Biden, in particular, argued against a "counterinsurgency for counterterrorism" strategy as overambitious and unsustainable. The deeply flawed election in Afghanistan, which, most importantly, was seen as deeply flawed by the Afghans, seems to have been the breaking point: the central government was not only corrupt, not only weak, and not only barely legitimate outside of Kabul; it was so weak and so corruptible that it would not even be able to sustain the standing army that NATO troops were desperately trying to train. Who was the U.S. fighting for? A weak, inept, ineffectual and ultimately disposable government? Implicit in this argument is that a strategy predicated on there being an alternative to the Taliban is like a hamster spinning on a wheel. In that case, removing the incentives for the Taliban to be radicalized and destroying the leadership of Al Qaeda -- basically, bribing people and killing people, and doing so indefinitely, but with irregular and special operations forces -- is the alternative. The Biden alternative focuses on the intricate connections between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Briefly put, Pakistan facilitates the Taliban and various insurgencies in Afghanistan because it preserves the option of living space to the north -- part of the grand goal of turning Pakistan into a haven for Islam. Kashmir's fate is crucial to this dynamic. But India won't talk about Kashmir; Pakistan won't -- can't -- truly cut off ties with the Taliban until Kashmir is dealt with -- and the U.S seems to have no leverage whatsoever.

What are the alternatives? An intense, low-level war of attrition between NATO forces and the Taliban forever? Or a concerted effort by the US, Russia, Iran and China to essentially force India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmiri dispute, combined with massive amounts of direct aid to Pakistan, combined with a massive influx of intelligence assets into the region, combined with the bribing of willing and bribable Taliban commanders? Basically, instead of focusing on Afghan civillians, this strategy would make it as expensive as possible for a Taliban leader to decide not to ally with the United States.  In other words -- counterterrorism as counterinsurgency, and not the other way around.

As Washington synthesizes the new report and tries to gauge its effect on the administration, speculation naturally redounds to the source of the leaker. Various theories have been put forth; let's put aside Occam's razor and assume that McChrystal and his staff didn't just give the document to Woodward. Theory one:  Woodward traveled with Gen. Jim Jones recently, so Jones gave him the report. Probably not: the trip was in July, before the review was finished. Admiral Mike Mullen's staff, anxious about White House dithering, leaked the report with Mullen's blessing. Probably not: Mullen shares Jones's concerns about mission drift and is counseling caution. The  more probable communities of suspects: senior Pentagon civilian holdovers, lifers, who've cooperated with Woodward before and who have a stake in McChrystal's counterinsurgency doctrine; war planners at Centcom, or the large cadre of defense consultants with clearance.

This leak not, in other words, a shot in an ongoing conflict between the military and civilians. It's between those who are invested in the success of McChrystal's endeavor and those who harbor growing concerns about over-investing in a strategy that might not work.