The Obama administration lowers expectations.
Throughout the debate about the "surge" in Iraq at the end of 2006 and the start of 2007, Bush administration spokesmen consistently underplayed the military requirements, and some people within the administration and the military tried to constrain the resources available to the commanders. These efforts were mistaken. They undermined support for the effort rather than building it, they distracted the commanders in the field from fighting the war to fighting for the troops they needed, and they continually put in question the administration's determination to see a very hard problem through to a successful conclusion. Is the Obama administration making similar mistakes regarding policy in Afghanistan? Judging by Wednesday's press conference with Pentagon Spokesman Geoff Morrell, it seems that the answer might well be yes.
Morrell began oddly by downplaying the significance of the review currently being conducted by General Stanley McChrystal. (Full disclosure: we were members of the civilian team that worked from late June to late July drafting products to support that review--but this article reflects our opinions only; not necessarily General McChrystal's or the conclusions of the review itself). Morrell said, "This is not akin to the much-anticipated General Petraeus assessments that we got in 2006 [sic], 2007." He added, "The assessment will not be, despite some erroneous reporting that I've seen, a work product that includes specific resource requests, if indeed there will be additional resource requests . . . that assessment will focus . . . on the situation on the ground and the way ahead, but it will not offer specific resource requests or recommendations."
It would be extremely strange for any commander to go through the exercise of designing a new strategy and campaign plan without also identifying the forces and other resources that would be needed to execute it. We do not know what resources General McChrystal will ask for, but he would be failing in his professional duty if he did not inform the Secretary of Defense of the requirements to execute his strategy--and the Secretary of Defense would be neglecting his duties if he did not ask.
Why would the Pentagon spokesman describe the commander's review process in such a dismissive and meaningless way? Why is the Pentagon spokesman talking down an assessment by that commander that is underway and incomplete but clearly marks a critical inflection point in the war? Why does the Pentagon wish to "lower expectations just a bit about what it is that's coming" out of General McChrystal's assessment? Unless, of course, the rumors are true that the administration is highly resistant to the idea of providing any additional forces that might be necessary to conduct the new strategy designed by their chosen commander to fight the war that the president said was the most important national security challenge we face.
Morrell also said, "we are early in this new approach by General McChrystal" and implied that the operations now underway in Helmand would provide some sort of indicator of its success. Nothing could be further from the truth. General McChrystal has not implemented his new approach--because he's still working through the assessment that appears to impress the Pentagon so little. The operations in Helmand were ordered long before McChrystal was in command and reflect the strategy and concepts of his predecessor. McChrystal will be able to use additional forces that General McKiernan had already requested but that have not yet arrived in theater, but those forces were requested to support McKiernan's strategy. It is far from clear that they will be sufficient to support a new strategy. Our own assessment--again, not necessarily reflecting General McChrystal's views--is that more forces will be needed, and very soon. The administration's body-language (and, in the case of the National Security Advisor's comments last month, explicit statements) suggest that any such request will be received skeptically if not with hostility.
The Bush administration went through two distinct phases in managing the Iraq war. First it underplayed the challenge and the resources required to meet it, allowing the situation to deteriorate to the point of near catastrophe. Then it recognized the scale of the problem, gave a new commander license to design a new strategy and the resources he needed to implement it, and things turned around. One would have thought that a Secretary of Defense who watched the first phase and oversaw the second phase--to say nothing of a president who seemed determined to undo and avoid the mistakes his predecessor had made--would get it right. The signs right now, though, are deeply worrying.
Frederick W. Kagan, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Kimberly Kagan is the president of the Institute for the Study of War and the author of The Surge: A Military History.