Policy debates

Bill Roggio describes the internal struggle over Afghan war policy. The account suggests that consensus has somehow not been reached within the administration and that there are now serious divisions within the senior leadership about where the campaign in Afghanistan is going next. How did it come to this?


Within 24 hours of the leak of the Afghanistan assessment to The Washington Post, General Stanley McChrystal’s team fired its second shot across the bow of the Obama administration. According to McClatchy, military officers close to General McChrystal said he is prepared to resign if he isn’t given sufficient resources (read “troops”) to implement a change of direction in Afghanistan …

The entire process followed by the military in implementing a change of course in Afghanistan is far different, and bizarrely so, from the process it followed in changing strategy in Iraq. …

For Afghanistan, the process to decide on a course change began in March of this year, when Bruce Reidel was tasked to assess the situation. This produced the much-heralded yet vague “AfPak” assessment. Then, in May, General David McKiernan was fired and replaced by General McChrystal, who took command in June. General McChrystal’s assessment hit President Obama’s desk at the end of August, almost three months after he took command. And yet now in the last half of September, the decision on additional forces has yet to be submitted to the administration. …

Today, the military is perceiving that the administration is punting the question of a troop increase in Afghanistan, and the military is even questioning the administration’s commitment to succeed in Afghanistan. The leaking of the assessment and the report that McChrystal would resign if he is not given what is needed to succeed constitute some very public pushback against the administration’s waffling on Afghanistan.


Some light on how strategy is formulated was shed by Hillary Clinton in an interview with Newshour’s Margaret Warner. Clinton conveys the impression that McChrystal was “a new commander and he was asked to please give his best judgment” with all that suggests.

HILLARY CLINTON: Well first let me put it into context. I mean one of the points that the President has made continuously since taking office is that we’re going to be assessing, both our strategy and its implementation constantly. We’re not going to make a decision and then just let it go on autopilot. We think that it’s much better to be very open and robust in our deliberations. So what General McChrystal has done is to take a look from his perspective. He’s a new commander and he was asked to please give his best judgment. His memo is what’s called a classified pre-decisional assessment but it goes into the process. We have a really vigorous process through the NSC and the White House where we make our contributions and then of course decisions go to the president. I think the President said very well yesterday on his marathon talk show appearances that you know we need to have a clear view of the strategy and its implementation before we get to resources, and that’s the process we’re engaged in right now.

MARGARET WARNER: General McChrystal was very blunt saying if you want to do counter-insurgency, he needs more resources or the whole war will, quote, “likely result in failure.” Now is there anyone better positioned to give at least that kind of assessment than the commander you sent out there, or the president sent out there to do just that?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, but, without referencing General McChrystal’s report because it is classified, let me just say that we know, including our military colleagues that good governance is key to whether or not what we do has positive results. We know that getting it right in Pakistan and along the border is critical. So there’s not just one decision point — number of troops. It is part of a broader understanding of what are our true goals, how best can we move toward achieving them? We have a clear and critical objective of trying to disrupt and dismantle and defeat al-Qaida and their extremist allies and prevent a return to safe haven, and every piece of this has to fit together. We don’t even know yet who will be the president of Afghanistan so it’s, it’s not in any way to say that what General McChrystal, based on his expertise is presenting or asking for is not important. It’s critically important but it’s a part of the overall process and there are many other considerations that we have to take into account.–


However, Clinton’s statements disguise the fact that the case for more troops was being pushed most aggressively by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.  “We have reached a turning point in Afghanistan as to whether we are going to formally adopt nation-building as a policy,” said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a former secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration.  And the idea that the White House is “going to be assessing, both our strategy and its implementation constantly” may raise memories of Lyndon Johnson’s famous boast “them boys over there can’t bomb an outhouse without my permission”.

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Foreign Policy is aghast at the appearance in the Washington Post of a leaked version of McChrystal’s report. It is a harsh critique of the Afghan government and past command failures, but it also emphasizes the underresourced and off-hand nature of the administration’s involvement. Perhaps the harshest lines were delivered in companion Washington Post piece by Chandrasekan and de Young.  The last paragraph reads:

When Obama announced his strategy in March, there were few specifics fleshing out his broad goals, and the military was left to interpret how to implement them. As they struggle over how to adjust to changing reality on the ground, some in the administration have begun to fault McChrystal for taking the policy beyond where Obama intended, with no easy exit.

But Obama’s deliberative pace — he has held only one meeting of his top national security advisers to discuss McChrystal’s report so far — is a source of growing consternation within the military. “Either accept the assessment or correct it, or let’s have a discussion,” one Pentagon official said. “Will you read it and tell us what you think?” Within the military, this official said, “there is a frustration. A significant frustration. A serious frustration.”


It is hardly the picture of an executive team “assessing, both our strategy and its implementation constantly”. An uncharitable reading of the article would be a snapshot of people bereft of ideas themselves but full of advice for others. But interested in detail or not, President Obama certainly seems determined to have his strategic way, not only in Afghanistan but in setting over all nuclear weapons policy. The Guardian’s Julian Borger has this report from London:

President Barack Obama has demanded the Pentagon radically review the US nuclear weapons doctrine to prepare for deep cuts in the US arsenal. Mr Obama has rejected the Pentagon’s first draft of the nuclear posture review as being too timid, and has called for more far-reaching options consistent with his goal of abolishing nuclear weapons, European officials say. The options include:

– Reconfiguring the US nuclear force to allow for an arsenal measured in hundreds rather than thousands of deployed strategic warheads.
– Redrafting nuclear doctrine to narrow the conditions under which the US would use nuclear weapons.
– Exploring guaranteeing the reliability of nuclear weapons without testing or producing a new generation of warheads.

… One official said: ”Obama is now driving this process. He is saying these are the President’s weapons, and he wants to look again at the doctrine and their role.”

Questions of policy should be resolved by the civilian leadership, which in turn is accountable to the political process. But with the country racked by the debate over health care “reform” and a deepening polarization in the points of view, one wonders how these serious national security questions are going to be resolved.  Can the Senate, for example, hold hearings on the advisability of making deep and probably irreversible cuts to the nation’s nuclear arsenal in the face of an apparent division of opinion? Can it offer an opinion on a way forward in Afghanistan. There is precedent for this. For example, the Iraq Study Group, chaired by James Baker, was “a ten-person bipartisan panel appointed on March 15, 2006, by the United States Congress, that was charged with assessing the situation in Iraq and the US-led Iraq War and making policy recommendations. It was first proposed by Virginia Republican Representative Frank Wolf”. President Bush did not follow its recommendations in the end, but the process of debate was in itself valuable.


While the President remains the commander in chief, it is probably desirable to thresh out the pro and contra in a public forum not only to surface the different points of view, but to provide assurance that the policy is rational and in the national interest. If a Commander in Chief is going to disregard the professional advice of the uniformed services and insist on deep cuts in weapons upon which survival may depend, prudence dictates that the reasons, so far as security allows, be made known. Just as everyone is entitled to disregard the advice of one’s medical doctor, the Commander in Chief, may for valid reasons, overrule the men in the field. But this is rarely done lightly and should best be for  an obvious and compelling reason. It’s not sufficiently convincing for a source to say “these are the President’s weapons”. Nuclear weapons are not President Obama’s personal property; they are the country’s weapons, entrusted to him for a space.

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