Stanley McChrystal, the general in charge of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, says the Obama administration needs to make up its mind on quickly on a strategy — and rejected the idea of lowering the bar.


John Burns and Alan Cowell reporting for NYT:

In a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a private policy group here, General McChrystal said that the situation in Afghanistan was serious and that “neither success nor failure can be taken for granted.”

He was speaking in Britain — America’s close ally in Afghanistan — a day after he had participated by video link from London in a White House strategy session on the war that included President Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and an array of senior advisers.

General McChrystal was asked by a member of an audience that included retired military commanders and security specialists whether he would support an idea put forward by Mr. Biden to scale back the American military presence in Afghanistan to focus on tracking down the leaders of Al Qaeda, in place of the current broader effort now under way to defeat the Taliban. “The short answer is: no,” he said. “You have to navigate from where you are, not where you wish to be. A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a short-sighted strategy.” He did not mention Mr. Biden by name.


Asked if a refusal to give him more troops would lead to failure in Afghanistan, he said: “I think if you don’t align the goals and the resources, you will have a significant problem. If we don’t do that, we will.”


General McChrystal said he believed that Afghanistan was the “key” to stability in south Asia as well as to the security of the United States, Britain and other western allies.

He acknowledged that he was worried that time was running out. “I don’t think we have the luxury of going so fast that we make the wrong decision,” he said. But, at the same time, he said, events were moving on. “People are making decisions, Afghans are making decisions, insurgents are making decisions, supporting nations are making decisions,” he said, referring in part by the prospect of some NATO allies scaling back their commitments in Afghanistan.

The speech and related materials are available at the IISS website.

Such bold statements would seem to continue a trend started with the leaking of his “confidential” strategic assessment to the Washington Post, namely forcing the Obama administration to either go along or be seen as overriding the best advice of the military professionals. This is doubly problematic, since Obama’s defense secretary only recently sacked McChrystal’s predecessor, David McKiernan, on the basis that “I couldn’t afford not to have my A team over there.” By extension, then, doing other than what McChrystal advises is to overrule the A team.

This isn’t exactly Douglas MacArthur territory.  Obama has yet to outline a competing strategic vision and McChrystal is essentially just making a full-throated defense of the doctrine he was sent to carry out.  But it does put his commander-in-chief in a rather awkward position.

His approach is at stark contrast to that of Kip Ward, commander of United States Africa Command, who repeatedly deflected questions about strategic priorities in his Atlantic Council appearance earlier in the week.  Each time such a query was posed, he simply noted that he takes his orders from the president and the secretary of defense.

Somewhere in between these tacks strikes me as the proper mode for four-star commanders. They should work within the commander’s intent — which in McChrystal’s case means that of CENTCOM chief David Petraeus as well as the president and SECDEF  — but also use their professionaljudgment in how best to carry out their mission.  When it’s obvious that the president and his senior advisors are seriously considering a major policy change, however, it’s probably best for the generals to provide their inputs in private to avoid giving the appearance of undermining civilian control of policy.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

Related Experts: James Joyner