As widely rumored, NATO’s Afghanistan commander has asked President Obama for another sizable increase in troops, otherwise suffer “likely failure.”


The “confidential” memo from General Stanley McCrystal was obtained by the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward and published [PDF] in this morning’s edition, apparently held for a day and slightly redacted in deference to White House request.    From Woodward’s report:

McChrystal concludes the document’s five-page Commander’s Summary on a note of muted optimism: “While the situation is serious, success is still achievable.” But he repeatedly warns that without more forces and the rapid implementation of a genuine counterinsurgency strategy, defeat is likely. McChrystal describes an Afghan government riddled with corruption and an international force undermined by tactics that alienate civilians.


McChrystal’s assessment is one of several options the White House is considering. His plan could intensify a national debate in which leading Democratic lawmakers have expressed reluctance about committing more troops to an increasingly unpopular war. Obama said last week that he will not decide whether to send more troops until he has “absolute clarity about what the strategy is going to be.”


McChrystal makes clear that his call for more forces is predicated on the adoption of a strategy in which troops emphasize protecting Afghans rather than killing insurgents or controlling territory. Most starkly, he says: “[I]nadequate resources will likely result in failure. However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced.”

As Mark Mardell points out, BBC broke many of the details back in August but having the full memo public increases the political pressure surrounding it.  Duke political scientist Peter Feaver, who served stints on both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush National Security Council staffs, is unhappy about this fact, arguing that “the Commander-in-Chief ought to be able to conduct internal deliberations on sensitive matters without it appearing concurrently on the front pages of the Post.”

At the same time, he blames Obama for letting this memo circulate so long, percolating through Washington, without weighing in. Indeed, he guesses this is what prompted the link. He cites this passage in Woodward’s report:

“Either accept the assessment or correct it, or let’s have a discussion,” one Pentagon official said. “Will you read it and tell us what you think?” Within the military, this official said, “there is a frustration. A significant frustration. A serious frustration.”

Washington Independent‘s Spencer Ackerman figures more than frustration motivated the leak:

The Washington Post’s headline — “McChrystal: More Forces Or ‘Mission Failure’” — does what the persons who leaked Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Afghanistan strategy review evidently wanted to do: box President Obama in to a static request for more U.S. troops and dare him to refuse his chosen commander’s recommendations. The moves to separate the strategy review, conducted for McChrystal by a group of (mostly) Beltway think tank security experts, from the request for resources and the expectation that the resource request will feature more than just that more-troops request may have been designed to keep the ends and means questions distinct, but they also had the effect of preserving Obama’s freedom of action. There’s going to be pressure on Obama to simply accede to any request for more troops, and the media will frame the request, and Obama’s decision, through that prism.

University of Michigan historian and Islam scholar Juan Cole cites a companion WaPo piece by Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung (“Changes Have Obama Rethinking War Strategy”) as evidence that “There is a serious and growing rift between the Obama White House and the uniformed officers over Afghanistan policy.”

McChrystal sketched out his approach, modeled in some ways on what the military learned in Iraq, at a time when Obama had momentum on Afghanistan and he assumed that Washington was committed to a counter-insurgency effort.

In the meantime, the US public turned against the war, the Democrats in Congress started resisting sending more troops, and Hamid Karzai destroyed the legitimacy of his government by trying to steal the presidential election. Some administration advisers are apparently urging the US to get out of Afghanstan but to retain the capability of hitting dangerous persons and groups with aerial drones.

Cole also cites frustration over the fraud in the seemingly never-ending election and a report that the Afghan army is not likely to materialize:

One hope that Washington repeatedly expresses is that an Afghan national army can be trained and the country turned over to it in only a few years. Ann Jones at suggests, based on her own experience in Kabul, that the Afghan army may not actually exist, and may, in fact be a scam whereby an Afghan joins, takes the basic training pay, and then disappears. Some may even go through it two and three times. She points out that when 4,000 Marines went into Helmand Province this spring, they were accompanied by only 600 Afghan troops, and she wonders where the others are. She has a dark suspicion that no such army tens of thousands strong even exists. The US may even have trained persons who then defected to the Taliban.

The Nation‘s Richard Dreyfuss argues that Obama may well buck McCrystal and the expectations he himself has set up owing to this new strategic landscape.

Obama suggested yesterday, during his marathon round of Sunday interviews, that he may not be ready to write McChrystal the blank check that he wants. Obama said that he “is not going to be driven by the politics of the moment,” and he said that before he’ll add more troops he wants to make sure that the strategy is correct.


And he reiterated the key point that his objective in Afghanistan is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda — a goal that, according to many observers, is already accomplished — rather than to rebuild, or rather build, a nation where none exists.

Ackerman agrees, noting “while we’re reading about the strategy review’s details now, Obama read it weeks ago, and still told David Gregory that he refuses to add troops until he’s convinced that the strategy is correct.”

Troy political scientist Steven Taylor guesses politics will force Obama to accomodate McChrystal, at least for now:

The question now becomes whether a serious debate emerges in the administration, within Congress, and with the broader population about what to do next, or whether the administration will simply decide to double-down on the more troops option. I am guessing that ultimately the administration will opt to send in more troops rather than risk the political attacks that would come if it decided to “abandon Afghanistan.”

Given that he ran for office for two years on a platform of Afghanistan as a “war of necessity” that was too long neglected by a Bush administration obsessed with Iraq and just sent McChrystal over there for the explicit purpose of conducting a full-scale COIN operation, I tend to agree.  My guess is that this will be framed as a “last chance” and that, barring some miraculous reversal of fortunes within the 12-month window McChrystal argues is decisive, we’ll quickly change course and begin the process of ending our major commitment to Afghanistan.

But that’s just delaying what now seems inevitable.   World Politics Review‘s Judah Grunstein:

The Achilles’ heel of the report, and any COIN-based approach to stabilizing the country, is that success continues to be defined as a function of the Afghan government’s perceived legitimacy, which is itself a function of its effectiveness. And it’s obvious to everyone that the Afghan government is both corrupt and incompetent.

Which, of course, when combined with the non-existent European appetite to contribute more to the effort, it falls to the United States. The problem, though, as Dave Schuler puts it, “The more American troops in an active role defending the Afghans, the more American casualties, and the more political pressure to withdraw from Afghanistan.”

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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