The Magazine

The President & the Generals

Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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Ambassador Huntsman’s comments about the forces he believes would be adequate to accomplish a vaguely defined mission in Afghanistan highlighted precisely this problem. Airily explaining that 10-15,000 troops would be more than enough to conduct counterterrorism operations, Huntsman demonstrated his own ignorance of the intricacies of military operations. How did he arrive at that number? Did he or someone on his staff identify the locations from which drones and Special Forces strike groups would operate? The tasks required to protect those locations from insurgent attack? The requirements for helicopters, aircraft, and trucks to supply them? The maintenance teams needed to keep that equipment running?

Of course not. Choosing a number that seems “right” to a career politician is almost certain to lead to the wrong number. Providing precision about the requirements to accomplish specific military tasks is the job of military staffs, which is why overruling the recommendations of those staffs, tendered by their commanders, is such a dangerous course.

Yet this is the course President Obama has repeatedly pursued. In December 2009, he endorsed General Stanley McChrystal’s assessment of the situation in Afghanistan as well as the strategy McChrystal proposed to achieve it, but then withheld a quarter of the combat forces McChrystal had identified as necessary to accomplish the president’s objectives. In June 2011, President Obama reportedly received recommendations from General David Petraeus to cut not more than 5,000 troops from Afghanistan in this year and to retain the force levels in that theater at roughly constant levels through the end of 2012. Obama rejected that advice, ordering the withdrawal of 10,000 troops by the end of 2011 and another 23,000 by September 2012.

Meanwhile, painstaking staff work in Iraq led General Lloyd Austin to recommend trying to keep more than 20,000 troops in Iraq after the end of 2011. The White House also rejected that advice and was negotiating with the Iraqi government to keep around 3,000 troops in Iraq. Encountering challenges in that negotiation, the White House then dropped the matter entirely and decided instead to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year, despite the fact that no military commander supported the notion that such a course of action could secure U.S. interests or the president’s stated objectives.

Three different commanders in two theaters, all personally selected by President Obama, offered their best professional military advice about how to achieve the president’s stated goals. In each case, the Joint Chiefs of Staff supported those recommendations. In Afghanistan, at least, two secretaries of defense did as well. In none of these cases had another military staff developed a different recommendation. Nor was there any significant difference of opinion reported within the senior military ranks about the field commanders’ recommendations. Yet President Obama selected his own troop numbers and his own timelines in every instance.

Again, President Obama had the right to make every one of those decisions, and the dedication of the American military to the principle of civilian authority has been highlighted by the fact that every commander the president overruled saluted and moved to execute his new orders. There is a wide gap between having the right to do something and having the wisdom to do the right thing, however. Are we really comfortable saying that three different four-star generals—David Petraeus, Lloyd Austin, and Stanley McChrystal—were so incompetent either at understanding the president’s objectives or at developing military courses of action to achieve them that the president had to overrule them?

Under no circumstances should the president of the United States ever take an important military decision simply because a uniformed officer has recommended it. But, when the president does overrule his commanders, he had better have an extremely good reason not only to reject their advice but to prefer his own wisdom. And if he finds himself doing it repeatedly, he would do well to consider what the source of the problem really is.

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