The Blog

The Cost of Dithering

The delay in White House decision-making is protracting and complicating the campaign in Afghanistan.

11:00 PM, Nov 10, 2009 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN and KIMBERLY KAGAN
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General Stanley McChrystal's assessment and force-requirement studies were largely complete by the beginning of August. The White House has stated that the president will not be announcing a decision until the end of November at the earliest. White House officials claim that the delay does not affect the movement of U.S. forces or our prospects for military success next year. These claims are inaccurate. The delay in White House decision-making is protracting and complicating the campaign in Afghanistan and has reduced General McChrystal's ability to prepare for and conduct decisive operations next year.

When McChrystal took command of the Afghan war in June, the White House made it clear that he was expected to make dramatic progress within a year--by the summer of 2010. McChrystal worked quickly both to understand the situation and to develop an appropriate course of action that would meet the goals of the White House strategy. His concept of operations aimed to reverse the enemy's momentum and address important problems in Afghan governance. At the same time, he oversaw the establishment of a new three-star headquarters, the deployment of the last of the additional forces his predecessor had requested for election security, the securing of the elections themselves, and major operations in Helmand and elsewhere. He also made the painful decision to pull U.S. forces back from isolated outposts that required too much manpower and were in danger of being overrun. He sought to create conditions for decisive operations in time to meet the expectations of the White House. He was supported in that effort by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen and by CENTCOM Commander General David Petraeus.

The White House has not done its part to allow General McChrystal to meet its own deadline. It was slow to receive and act on the assessment he sent, and it deliberately refused even to review his force recommendations for weeks after they were complete. In the intervening months the White House has held a series of seminars on Afghanistan and the region that should have been conducted before the new strategy was announced in March.

If the White House had immediately received and acted on General McChrystal's recommendations--which were specifically tailored to meet the objectives described in the president's March 27 speech--the following critical initiatives could already be underway:

* Expanding the Afghan National Security Forces as rapidly as possible toward the goal of 400,000 total, a figure agreed-upon by the Afghan Ministers of Defense and Interior and by the U.S. military's own reviews;

* Preparing infrastructure within Afghanistan and the region to accommodate a large and rapid surge of U.S. forces;

* Sending more forces immediately to support ongoing operations in Helmand;

* Issuing orders to deploy all of the forces McChrystal requested as rapidly as possible.

The White House could have begun all of those initiatives and still conducted a thoughtful review over the ensuing weeks.

It takes months to prepare and deploy a large combat unit to a distant theater. But neither the unit involved nor the military organizations that have to support the move can get ready without orders. The prepare-to-deploy order, on the other hand, can be reversed--units can cancel movement plans or return to home stations more readily than they can start deploying without warning. Some units remain ready-to-go at a moment's notice, of course, like the ready brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division and some Marine units. Of course, units deployed on short notice following the completion of the McChrystal review in August could have been on the ground by now, contributing to the fight.

Ordering the most rapid possible expansion of the ANSF should have required no discussion. Expanding Afghan forces has been a core principle of almost every plan the president has considered seriously. Indeed, it was one of the primary recommendations of the policy review conducted this spring. And it is also, again, something that could have been turned off with little harm if a few months of review changed the president's mind.