In 2009, President Obama made several courageous national security decisions, including extending his campaign timeline for withdrawal from Iraq and sending tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan. Both contravened many in his party who wanted U.S. troops out of Iraq as soon as possible and who are worried that Afghanistan will become Obama's Vietnam.
Those who have made the latter case are well represented in the White House. During President Obama's months-long review of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for additional troops, armchair generals such as Vice President Biden, Rahm Emanuel, and others all tried to find ways to convince the president to reject McChrystal's request and to limit U.S. goals in Afghanistan. These opponents leaked profusely to the media, spinning the status of interagency debate, the president's inclinations, and doing all they could to undermine Gen. McChrystal, Gen. Petraeus, and Secretary of Defense Gates.
With the president having decided to send Gen. McChrystal the bulk of the additional forces he requested, one would think that all is settled, right? Well, it seems that key White House officials don't think so. They continue to snipe at Gen. McChrystal as he sets out to implement the strategy that the president announced at West Point on December 1.
First, several weeks after the president's speech, Vice President Biden took to the airwaves to claim that "this is not a COIN [counterinsurgency strategy]" and that the president's July 2011 deadline for the beginning of a conditions-based withdrawal would result in troop numbers rapidly coming down. Both statements directly contradicted comments made by Secretary Gates and Gen. McChrystal. Then, a Washington Post article in late December noted the confusion about what the President had actually decided:
“Members of Obama's war cabinet disagree over the meaning of his pledge to begin drawing down forces in July 2011 and whether the mission has been narrowed from a proposal advanced by McChrystal in his August assessment of the war. The disagreements have opened a fault line between a desire for an early exit among several senior officials at the White House and a conviction among military commanders that victory is still achievable on their terms. The differences are complicating implementation of the new strategy. Some officers have responded to the July 2011 date by seeking to accelerate the pace of operations, instead of narrowing them. At the White House, a senior administration official said, the National Security Council is discussing ways to increase monitoring of military and State Department activities in Afghanistan to prevent "overreaching."”
Now, over the weekend, the New York Times published what is essentially a hit piece on Gen. McChrystal by White House officials:
“Senior White House advisers are frustrated by what they say is the Pentagon’s slow pace in deploying 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and its inability to live up to an initial promise to have all of the forces in the country by next summer, senior administration officials said Friday. Tensions over the deployment schedule have been growing in recent weeks between senior White House officials — among them Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, and Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff — and top commanders, including Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the senior commander in Afghanistan.”
White House officials are supposedly upset because an essential component of a fast drawdown in 2011 is getting the initial surge there as soon as possible to begin to make progress. The Pentagon agrees with the need to make progress quickly, but is dealing with real-world logistical challenges of implementing what is essentially a politically-imposed timeline. Despite Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell’s claim that the Times “fabricated” this latest controversy, it is clear that someone in the White House wanted to get the anti-McChrystal message out. It seems that Biden et al. are still frustrated that the lost the battle during the Afghanistan policy review (Biden was also on the losing side of the first review back in March as well) and are looking for ways to further their agenda and sow doubt about what can be accomplished prior to July 2011.
The president took a while, but he made the right decision in December. Gen. McChrystal appears to understand what he needs to do with the additional resources the president provided to create the conditions for success in Afghanistan. He doesn’t need second guessing by political hacks at the White House. President Obama should now exercise some leadership in his own White House and tell his vice president and his political advisers that undermining his commanders on the ground is counterproductive and unacceptable.