The Generals' Revolt
As Obama rethinks America's failed strategy in
Afghanistan, he faces two insurgencies: the Taliban
and the Pentagon
Posted Oct 28, 2009 1:51 PM
In early October, as President Obama huddled with top
administration officials in the White House situation
room to rethink America's failing strategy in
Afghanistan, the Pentagon and top military brass were
trying to make the president an offer he couldn't
refuse. They wanted the president to escalate the war -
go all in by committing 40,000 more troops and another
trillion dollars to a Vietnam-like quagmire - or face a
full-scale mutiny by his generals.
Obama knew that if he rebuffed the military's pressure,
several senior officers - including Gen. David Petraeus,
the ambitious head of U.S. Central Command, who is
rumored to be eyeing a presidential bid of his own in
2012 - could break ranks and join forces with hawks in
the Republican Party. GOP leaders and conservative media
outlets wasted no time in warning Obama that if he
refused to back the troop escalation being demanded by
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander overseeing the
eight-year-old war, he'd be putting U.S. soldiers' lives
at risk and inviting Al Qaeda to launch new assaults on
the homeland. The president, it seems, is battling two
insurgencies: one in Afghanistan and one cooked up by
his own generals.
"I don't understand why the military is putting so much
pressure on the White House now over Afghanistan," says
a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. "Unless it has
something to do with the presidential ambitions of a
certain Centcom commander."
The military's campaign to force Obama's hand started in
earnest in September, when the Commander's Initial
Assessment of the war - a highly classified report
prepared by McChrystal - was leaked to The Washington
Post. According to insiders, the leak was coordinated by
someone close to Petraeus, McChrystal's boss and ally.
Speculation has centered on Gen. Jack Keane, a retired
Army vice chief of staff and Petraeus confidant, who
helped convince George W. Bush to get behind the "surge"
in Iraq. In the report, McChrystal paints a dire picture
of the American effort in Afghanistan, concluding that a
massive increase in troop levels is the only way to
prevent a humiliating failure.
On Capitol Hill, hawkish GOP congressmen seized the
opening to turn up the heat on Obama by demanding that
he allow McChrystal and Petraeus to come to Washington
to testify at high-profile hearings to ask for more
troops. "It is time to listen to our commanders on the
ground, not the ever-changing political winds whispering
defeat in Washington," declared Sen. Kit Bond, a
Republican from Missouri. Attempting to usurp Obama's
authority as commander in chief, Sen. John McCain
introduced an amendment to compel the two generals to
come before Congress, but the measure was voted down by
the Democratic majority.
As the pressure from the military and the right built,
McChrystal went on 60 Minutes to complain that he had
only talked to Obama once since his appointment in June.
Then, upping the ante, the general flew to London for a
speech, where he was asked if de-escalating the war,
along the lines reportedly suggested by Vice President
Joe Biden, might work. "The short answer is: no," said
McChrystal, dismissing the idea as "shortsighted." His
comment - which bluntly defied the American tradition
that a military officer's job is to carry out policy,
not make it - shocked political observers in Washington
and reportedly angered the White House.
"Petraeus and McChrystal have put Obama in a trick bag,"
says Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a former top aide to
Secretary of State Colin Powell. "We had this happen one
time before, with Douglas MacArthur" - the right-wing
general who was fired after he defied President Truman
over the Korean War in 1951.
It isn't clear how far McChrystal and his boss,
Petraeus, are willing to go. There have been rumors
around the Pentagon that McChrystal might quit if Obama
doesn't give him what he wants - a move that would fuel
Republican criticism of Obama. "He'll be a good soldier,
but he will only go so far," a senior U.S. military
officer in Kabul told reporters.
For his part, Obama moved quickly to handle the
insurrection. One day after McChrystal's defiant London
speech, the president unexpectedly summoned the general
to a one-on-one meeting aboard an idling Air Force One
in Copenhagen. No details of the discussion were
released, but two days later Jim Jones, the retired
Marine general who now serves as Obama's national-
security adviser, publicly rebuked McChrystal, declaring
that it is "better for military advice to come up
through the chain of command."
The struggle between the White House and the Pentagon is
an important test of whether the president can take
command in a political storm that could tear his
administration apart. Obama himself is partly to blame
for the position he finds himself in. During the
presidential campaign last year, Obama praised the
Afghan conflict as "the right war," in contrast to the
bungled and unnecessary invasion of Iraq. Once in
office, he ordered 21,000 additional troops to Kabul,
painting the war as vital to America's national
security. "If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban
or allows Al Qaeda to go unchallenged," the president
declared, "that country will again be a base for
terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as
they possibly can." He also fired the commanding general
in Afghanistan, David McKiernan, and replaced him with
McChrystal, a close Petraeus ally and an advocate of the
doctrine of counterinsurgency.
When it comes to COIN, as it's known in military jargon,
Petraeus literally wrote the book: the Counterinsurgency
Field Manual, which has become the bible for proponents
of COIN. In its essence, counterinsurgency demands an
extremely troop-intensive, village-by-village effort to
win hearts and minds among the population of an occupied
country, supported by a lethal killing machine and an
expensive "clear, hold and build" program to eliminate
the enemy from an area and consolidate those gains.
Within the military, COIN has developed a cult
following. "It has become almost a religion for some
people," says Paul Pillar, a former top intelligence
official with wide expertise in terrorism and the Middle East.
Supporters of Petraeus and McChrystal acknowledge that
applying COIN to Afghanistan means a heavy U.S.
commitment to war, in both blood and treasure. Even if
Obama dispatches 40,000 additional troops, on top of the
68,000 Americans already committed, we won't even know
if it's working for at least a year. "That is something
that will certainly take 12 to 18 months to assess,"
said Kim Kagan, the president of the Institute for the
Study of War, who helped write McChrystal's request for
more troops. Bruce Riedel, a COIN advocate and veteran
CIA officer who led Obama's review of the war last
March, is even more blunt. "Anyone who thinks that in 12
to 18 months we're going to be anywhere close to
victory," he said, "is living in a fantasyland."
In addition, the doctrine of counterinsurgency virtually
assures long-running military campaigns in other hot
spots, even as we're engaged in combat and rebuilding
operations in Afghanistan. "We're going to be involved
in this type of activity in a number of countries for
the next 15 to 20 years," said Lt. Gen. David Barno, a
COIN advocate who served as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
So far, though, COIN hasn't exactly delivered on its
promises. Despite the addition of 21,000 troops in
March, the Taliban have continued to make gains across
Afghanistan, establishing control or significantly
disrupting at least 40 percent of the country. According
to McChrystal's own report, Taliban leaders "appoint
shadow governors for most provinces," set up courts,
levy taxes, conscript fighters and boast about providing
"security against a corrupt government." What's more,
U.S. casualties have skyrocketed: In the four months
since McChrystal took over, 165 Americans have died in
Afghanistan - nearly one-fifth of those killed during the entire war.
By late summer, some in the Obama administration began
to have doubts about the efficacy of McChrystal's
counterinsurgency strategy - doubts that greatly
increased in the wake of Afghanistan's disastrous
presidential election in August. Hamid Karzai,
Washington's hand-picked president, was accused of
widespread fraud, including ballot-box stuffing and
"ghost" polling stations. Without a credible Afghan
government, COIN can't succeed, since its core idea is
to build support for the Afghan government.
Even before the election fiasco, Obama had sent Jones,
his national-security adviser, to Kabul to deliver a
message to his military commander: The White House
wouldn't look favorably on sending more soldiers to
Afghanistan. If the Pentagon asked for more troops,
Jones told McChrystal's top generals, the president
would have "a Whisky Tango Foxtrot moment" - that is,
What the fuck? According to The Washington Post, which
reported the encounter, the generals present "seemed to
blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all
the troops they were going to get."
Not long after the Afghan elections, Obama began a top-
to-bottom strategy review of the war. Among those who
started to question the basic assumptions of McChrystal
and his COIN allies were Jones, many of his colleagues
on the National Security Council, and Vice President
Biden. By contrast, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remained
remarkably quiet during the assessment, seeming to defer
to the White House when it came to challenging the Pentagon brass.
The issue has presented the most difficult political
decision of Obama's presidency thus far. The White House
knew that if Obama were to "fully resource" the military
campaign, he would be going to war without his own
political base, which has turned strongly against the
Afghan war. For the first time since 2001, according to
polls, a majority of Americans believe that the war in
Afghanistan is "not worth fighting." Fifty-seven percent
of independents and nearly three-quarters of Democrats
oppose the war - and overall, only 26 percent of
Americans support the idea of adding more troops.
Indeed, if Obama were to escalate the war, his only
allies would be the Pentagon, Congressional Republicans,
an ultraconservative think tank called the Foreign
Policy Initiative, whose supporters include Karl Rove,
Sarah Palin and a passel of neoconservatives and former
aides to George W. Bush.
On the other hand, rejecting McChrystal's demands for
more troops would make Obama vulnerable to GOP
accusations that he was embracing defeat, and give
congressional Republicans another angle of attack during
midterm elections next year. Even worse, the
administration has to take into account the possibility
of a terrorist attack, which would allow the GOP to put
the blame on the White House. "All it would take is one
terrorist attack, vaguely linked to Afghanistan, for the
military and his opponents to pounce all over him," says Pillar.
Within the administration, Biden has emerged as the
leading opponent of McChrystal's approach to never-
ending war. "He's proposing that we stop doing large-
scale counterinsurgency, that we rely on drones, U.S.
Special Forces and other tools to combat Al Qaeda," says
Stephen Biddle, an expert at the Council on Foreign
Relations who served on McChrystal's advisory team.
Biden's view, which has support among a significant
number of officials and analysts in and out of
government, is that rather than trying to defeat the
Taliban, the United States ought to focus on targeting
Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that want to strike
at American targets.
That Biden took the lead, says one former national-
security official, may be a sign that he has the
president's support. "Biden is playing a very inside
game," says the official. "He's in every meeting." In
early October, the vice president held a private session
to discuss war strategy with two members of the
administration who are considered among the more hawkish
members of Obama's team: Hillary Clinton and Richard
Holbrooke, the State Department's special adviser on
Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, Biden and Obama,
both former senators, are said to be relying on the
counsel of a pair of relatively dovish former
colleagues, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Sen. John
Kerry of Massachusetts. Kerry, the chairman of the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has recently made
comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam. Also
weighing in, apparently to advise against sending more
troops, has been Colin Powell, who met quietly with
Obama in mid-September.
Supporters of Biden's view argue that adding more troops
would actually make the problem worse, not better,
because the Taliban draw support from the fiercely
nationalist Pashtun ethnic group in Afghanistan and
Pakistan, who will mobilize to resist a long-term
occupation. "The real fact is, the more people we put
in, the more opposition there will be," says Selig
Harrison, a longtime observer of Afghanistan at the
Center for International Policy, a think tank formed in
the wake of the Vietnam War by former diplomats and
peace activists. The only exit strategy that might work,
say Harrison and others, is dramatically reducing the
U.S. military role in Afghanistan, shifting the focus
from the Taliban to Al Qaeda, and stepping up political
and diplomatic efforts. Such an initiative would also
require an intensive push to secure support from
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia - which maintain links to the
Taliban - as well as Iran, Russia, India and China.
"There's only one mission there that we can accomplish,"
says Michael Scheuer, who led the CIA's anti-Osama bin
Laden unit for years. "To go into Afghanistan, kill Al
Qaeda, do as much damage to the Taliban as possible and leave."
Opponents of that approach insist that it would allow Al
Qaeda to re-establish a safe haven in Afghanistan and
resume plotting attacks. But many terrorism experts
point out that Al Qaeda doesn't need Afghanistan as a
base of operations, since it can plan actions from
Pakistan or, for that matter, from a mosque in London or
Hamburg. "We deal with Al Qaeda in every country in the
world without invading the country," says Sen. Russ
Feingold, a Democrat who serves on both the Senate
foreign-relations and intelligence committees. "We deal
with them in Indonesia, the Philippines, Yemen, Somalia,
in European countries, in our own country, with various
means that range from law enforcement to military action
to other kinds of actions."
Feingold, who has proposed setting a flexible timetable
for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, says that the
administration must listen to advisers like Biden who
favor shifting course in Afghanistan. "If they do not,
if they refuse to, then we in Congress have to start
proposing our own timetables, just as we did when we
were stonewalled by the Bush administration," Feingold
says. "I'm prepared to take whatever steps I need to, in
consultation with other members of Congress, to make
those proposals if necessary."
Other Democrats have also expressed doubts about
appropriating more money for the conflict. Monthly
spending on the war is rising rapidly - from $2 billion
in October 2008 to $6.7 billion in June 2009 - and Obama
has requested a total of $65 billion for 2010, even
without another troop surge. "I don't think there is a
great deal of support for sending more troops to
Afghanistan in the country or in Congress," said House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the
Senate Armed Services Committee, has declared his
preference for sending trainers to Afghanistan to build
that country's armed forces, instead of U.S. combat
troops. And Rep. Jim McGovern recently got 138 votes for
an amendment that would have required the administration
to declare its exit strategy. "The further we get sucked
into this war, the harder it will be to get out of it,"
McGovern says. "What the hell is the objective? Tell me
how this has a happy ending. Tell me how we win this.
How do we measure success?"
Given the political pressure from both sides, Obama
appears to favor sidestepping the issue. At a meeting
with congressional leaders from both parties at the
White House on October 6th, the president said he won't
significantly reduce the number of troops in
Afghanistan, as many Democrats had hoped - but he also
seemed unlikely to endorse the major troop buildup
proposed by McChrystal. While that approach may quell
the Pentagon's insurrection for now, it only prolongs
the conflict in Afghanistan, postponing what many see as
an inevitable withdrawal. Wilkerson, the former aide to
Colin Powell, hopes Obama will follow the example of
President Kennedy, who faced down his generals during
the Cuban Missile Crisis. "It's going to take John
Kennedy-type courage to turn to his Curtis LeMay and
say, 'No, we're not going to bomb Cuba,'" Wilkerson
says. "It took a lot of courage on Kennedy's part to
defy the Pentagon, defy the military - and do the right thing."
[From Issue 1090 - October 29, 2009]