Belmont Club

The McChrystal letter

The Wall Street Journal says Secretary Gates has passed on a request for more men for the Afghan campaign from General McChrystal.  Gates had attempted to delay the formal transmission, but mounting public interest in the issue made it pointless to hold it back.


WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates has forwarded a request for more troops in Afghanistan to President Barack Obama, the Pentagon said Wednesday, as divisions within the administration and Congress continued despite Mr. Obama’s high-profile meeting with congressional leaders the day before …
in the end, the defense chief feared that the document — already widely reported on — would leak to the press before Mr. Obama had a chance to read it, said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. The request outlines several options ranging up to 40,000 troops added to the 68,000 now stationed or headed there.

The Washington Post argues that the administration did not fully realize what a commitment to Afghanistan meant when it gave the military the go-ahead to implement a counter-insurgency strategy in March. “Some civilians who participated in the strategic review … thought the thrust of the new approach was to send over scores more diplomats and reconstruction experts. They figured a counterinsurgency mission could be accomplished with the forces already in the country, plus the 17,000 new troops Obama had authorized in February.”  When the full import of the decision became evident there was consternation among high-level White House officials who never knew the price would come this high. They described it as “sticker shock”.

“It was easy to say, ‘Hey, I support COIN,’ because nobody had done the assessment of what it would really take, and nobody had thought through whether we want to do what it takes,” said one senior civilian administration official who participated in the review, using the shorthand for counterinsurgency.

The failure to reach a shared understanding of the resources required to execute the strategy has complicated the White House’s response to the grim assessment of the war by the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, forcing the president to decide, in effect, what his administration really meant when it endorsed a counterinsurgency plan. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s follow-up request for more forces, which presents a range of options but makes clear that the best chance of achieving the administration’s goals requires an additional 40,000 U.S. troops on top of the 68,000 who are already there, has given senior members of Obama’s national security team “a case of sticker shock,” the administration official said.

The meetings now underway in Washington are rooted in part in the gap in understanding that became evident in March. This account of how it opened up is based on interviews with several senior civilian members of the administration and military officers directly involved in Afghanistan issues. Nearly all spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about internal policy discussions.

As the president’s top defense and foreign policy officials debate the way forward, they have begun to revisit the March review’s main conclusion, asking whether the administration’s relatively narrow goal of preventing al-Qaeda’s return to Afghanistan would best be achieved through a full-on counterinsurgency mission or through a more limited counterterrorism operation that would target any high-level terrorists seeking to operate there again.

This time, the discussions about counterinsurgency will not remain theoretical or involve back-of-the-envelope estimates of troop levels. It is clear to all around the table now that pursuing a full counterinsurgency, at least according to the model developed in Iraq by Gen. David H. Petraeus and embraced by McChrystal, would entail tens of thousands of additional troops, legions of civilian specialists and billions more reconstruction dollars. …


The gap between what the administration thought it heard and what the military thought it said was mirrored by the differences between what Washington thought it said to the Pakistanis and what Islamabad thought it heard. Pakistani officials declared themselves dissatisfied with Washington’s support and hurt at the lack of confidence reposed in them.  ‘Where’, they asked, ‘was the money, the weapons, and above all the blank check?’ Reuters reports:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As President Barack Obama discusses the U.S. strategy toward Pakistan with his top advisers Wednesday, Pakistan’s foreign minister appealed for market access, military technology — and above all, trust. …

Congress has just approved a bill tripling aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year for the next five years, but with conditions attached that have unleashed a storm of protest from Pakistanis who complain the country is being humiliated.

A bill sought by Obama to boost trade by establishing special economic zones in Pakistan and Afghanistan has stalled in the U.S. Senate, partly over concerns about labor standards as well as worries within the U.S. textile industry.

Obama also turns to Pakistan Tuesday as he holds the third in series of meetings to review his Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy.

High on the agenda will be how far to trust Pakistan’s shadowy military intelligence agency, the ISI, widely accused of supporting radical Islamists including the Afghan Taliban.

The Pakistanis angrily dismissed accusations that parts of its intelligence service were coddling the Taliban. Reacting to reports that civilians were outraged at Predator strikes against Taliban targets, the Pakistanis argued that the way to avert local anger at US drone strikes was to turn over the drone technology over to them. Once more trust, money and drones were provided, the Pakistanis felt sure they could find it in themselves to take on the Taliban on their side of the border and all would be well.  The Obama administration, according to Pakistani sources was considering the suggestion. According to Reuters, Pakistan’s foreign minister said:

The United States, he said, needed to have a little bit more faith in the immensely powerful ISI. “If you keep doubting them, and don’t expect them to cooperate with you, that’s a contradiction,” he said. “Either trust them or don’t trust them. Don’t have one step forward, two steps backward.”…

As Obama mulls whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, he is also considering other ideas, like stepped-up bombing attacks on Taliban and al Qaeda targets in Pakistan. … They have also killed scores of civilians and angered many Pakistanis who feel their sovereignty has been trampled upon, leading critics to argue the policy is counterproductive.

“You have to understand our sensitivities,” Qureshi said in the interview with Reuters. “The way out that we have suggested is the use of drones, but under our ownership. Transfer technology to Pakistan and then let us use them.”

Such an idea would provoke howls of protest from neighbor and arch-rival India, and would surely meet significant opposition in the U.S. Congress.

Nevertheless Qureshi said the Obama administration was considering the issue. “Their mind is not shut to the arguments that we have projected,” he said. “We have a common objective. You have to see the gains you make by going ahead and engaging with us on this issue.” Qureshi said the Pakistani army would “most certainly” carry out a long-overdue military campaign against militants sheltering in the rugged Waziristan region on the Afghan border, once it had marshaled the necessary resources.


Faced with these harsh alternatives, the Washington Post says the President is approaching his decision with care. “Last Tuesday evening, to prepare for a meeting the next day to discuss Afghanistan strategy with his national security team — the first of several sessions to determine whether more troops will be sent — Obama reread the white paper” that had been given to him in March.  The better to make sure there are no more misunderstandings.

What is truly extraordinary about the Washington Post story is that when the President announced his earlier strategy, it was touted as “the conclusion of a careful policy review that I ordered as soon as I took office”. In an earlier Belmont Club post, Plan B, I quoted directly from the President’s strategy speech in March 2009.

“Good morning. Today, I am announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. This marks the conclusion of a careful policy review that I ordered as soon as I took office. … To achieve our goals, we need a stronger, smarter and comprehensive strategy. To focus on the greatest threat to our people, America must no longer deny resources to Afghanistan because of the war in Iraq. To enhance the military, governance, and economic capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have to marshal international support. And to defeat an enemy that heeds no borders or laws of war, we must recognize the fundamental connection between the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan – which is why I’ve appointed Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to serve as Special Representative for both countries, and to work closely with General David Petraeus to integrate our civilian and military efforts.  …

Let me start by addressing the way forward in Pakistan … I am calling upon Congress to pass a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by John Kerry and Richard Lugar that authorizes $1.5 billion in direct support to the Pakistani people every year over the next five years – resources that will build schools, roads, and hospitals, and strengthen Pakistan’s democracy. I’m also calling on Congress to pass a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Maria Cantwell, Chris Van Hollen and Peter Hoekstra that creates opportunity zones in the border region to develop the economy and bring hope to places plagued by violence. And we will ask our friends and allies to do their part – including at the donors conference in Tokyo next month. … That is why we will launch a standing, trilateral dialogue among the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan.   For three years, our commanders have been clear about the resources they need for training. Those resources have been denied because of the war in Iraq. Now, that will change. The additional troops that we deployed have already increased our training capacity. …

To advance security, opportunity, and justice – not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces – we need agricultural specialists and educators; engineers and lawyers. That is how we can help the Afghan government serve its people, and develop an economy that isn’t dominated by illicit drugs. That is why I am ordering a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground. And that is why we must seek civilian support from our partners and allies, from the United Nations and international aid organizations – an effort that Secretary Clinton will carry forward next week in the Hague.  …

There is an uncompromising core of the Taliban. They must be met with force, and they must be defeated. But there are also those who have taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price. These Afghans must have the option to choose a different course. That is why we will work with local leaders, the Afghan government, and international partners to have a reconciliation process in every province. As their ranks dwindle, an enemy that has nothing to offer the Afghan people but terror and repression must be further isolated. And we will continue to support the basic human rights of all Afghans – including women and girls. …

From our partners and NATO allies, we seek not simply troops, but rather clearly defined capabilities: supporting the Afghan elections, training Afghan Security Forces, and a greater civilian commitment to the Afghan people. For the United Nations, we seek greater progress for its mandate to coordinate international action and assistance, and to strengthen Afghan institutions.  And finally, together with the United Nations, we will forge a new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together all who should have a stake in the security of the region – our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China.


It is abundantly clear from the March speech that President Obama thought he understood what he was saying. So the idea that they didn’t read the fine print at the time and are now discovering the implications doesn’t quite ring true. It seems hard to believe their surprise is completely unfeigned. Because by July 2009, Bob Woodward was reporting trouble brewing in the policy councils. Basically the generals wanted more troops and more Afghan force generation. And even then the President was already resisting the calls for reinforcement. His messangers wanted more economic development.

National security adviser James L. Jones told U.S. military commanders here last week that the Obama administration wants to hold troop levels here flat for now, and focus instead on carrying out the previously approved strategy of increased economic development, improved governance and participation by the Afghan military and civilians in the conflict. The message seems designed to cap expectations that more troops might be coming, though the administration has not ruled out additional deployments in the future. Jones was carrying out directions from President Obama, who said recently, “My strong view is that we are not going to succeed simply by piling on more and more troops. This will not be won by the military alone,” Jones said in an interview during his trip. “We tried that for six years.” He also said: “The piece of the strategy that has to work in the next year is economic development. If that is not done right, there are not enough troops in the world to succeed.”

The question of the force level for Afghanistan, however, is not settled and will probably be hotly debated over the next year. One senior military officer said privately that the United States would have to deploy a force of more than 100,000 to execute the counterinsurgency strategy of holding areas and towns after clearing out the Taliban insurgents. That is at least 32,000 more than the 68,000 currently authorized.

“We don’t need more U.S. forces,” [Marine General] Nicholson finally told Jones. “We need more Afghan forces.” It is a complaint Jones heard repeatedly. Jones and other officials said Afghanistan, and particularly its president, Hamid Karzai, have not mobilized sufficiently for their own war. Karzai has said Afghanistan is making a major effort in the war and is increasing its own forces as fast as possible In an interview, Nicholson said that in the six months he has been building Camp Leatherneck and brought 9,000 Marines to the base, not a single additional member of the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) has been assigned to assist him. He said he needed “Afghanistan security forces — all flavors,” including soldiers, police, border patrol and other specialists


Re-reading the President’s March speech, there is no mention of fears of an illegitimate election.  And there is the curious disappearance of so many touted initiatives. The “opportunity zones” and grand diplomatic maneuvers, the dispatch of Secretary Clinton to the Hague and the efforts of Richard Holdbrooke, so grandly announced on that occasion, have disappeared with nary a whimper. We can guess, because now we know from the Pakistani Foreign minister’s recent wheedling that the whatever Islamabad was offered, it wasn’t enough. Nor were the resources for the men on the ground sufficient. Despite the promise to provide resources for training, the Marines could not then find “a single additional member” of the ANA assigned to them. Something has gone wrong.

Perhaps what went wrong was the deal making process itself. The President was trying to make many ends meet: to keep everybody happy. Perhaps he tried to satisfy the expectations of his leftist support base and the requirements of the US military; the expectations of the Pakistanis and the desires of the Karzai government. And it is possible that somewhere along the line his representatives, through carelessness or ambiguity, gave the impression of saying “yes” to everybody. Who knows how many checks were verbally or implictly written which are now impossible to cash. Now that the claimants are coming forward with their individual claims they’re finding they’re a chunk short of pie. It would not be surprising if the President were re-reading the March white paper to see how to meet his various promises with progress payments. The President’s actions in the aftermath of the McChrystal demand — his flight to the Olympics, his insistence on a policy process before he’d give an answer, the whole extended “study” period — reminded me of nothing so much as a man trying to hide from a debt collector.

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The Eyes Have It

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