Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Generals' Revolt

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]




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