John McCain:

“I think the great danger now is a half-measure, sort of a – you know, try to please all ends of the political spectrum,” McCain told CNN chief national correspondent John King. “And, again, I have great sympathy for the president, making the toughest decisions that presidents have to make, but I think he needs to use deliberate speed.”

Many people assume McCain’s comments only apply to the left, but the fact is that they also apply to the right, and it’s precisely because Obama has in fact taken the right VERY seriously indeed that he’s in so much hot water with the Progressives (who I admit in the interest of full self-disclosure I do not self-identify with; I am a liberal on a elliptical orbit around the center of political mass, thus I drift rightwards in a very predictable fashion.)

Much of the critique of Obama from the right comes via political scoring rather than a genuine critique of policy; a great example is the replacement of Gen McKiernan by Gen McChrystal. McChrystal’s background is special operations, commanding JSOC for five years (and capturing Saddam under his watch). The man is as much an expert in SO as Petraeus is in COIN. That strikes most principled observers as significant, though obviously it’s not officially commented on by the White House. The implications of policy shift are clear. That is the President’s prerogative; note that he has retained Secretary Gates from the previous Administration (again, a sore spot for lefties, and utterly ignored by righties intent on scoring points).

President Obama has asked for Gen. McChrystal’s assessment and he has received it in detail. Now, McCain woudn’t be doing his job if he didn’t pressure the President to act quickly, but the truth is that when you request a gigantic policy review from your top commanders, you do so because you want to make a decision, not a rubber stamp. President Bush was content to leave broad strategy to Gen. Petraeus and that was also his prerogative, but righties have assumed that this is the normal course of things. It’s not; the President, the Commander in Chief, is a civilian. It’s the President’s prerogative to give a general free reign, but it extends only as far and as long as the Commander in Chief wills it so. In Iraq, that free reign by Petraeus was one thing; in Afghanistan it is quite another. Afghanistan is not Iraq.

No General will ever – if he is competent and values his career – ask for less troops. That Gen. McChrystal would ask for more was a given, but if you read the report you find he makes a very different argument. In General McChrystal’s own words:

Success is achievable, but it will not be attained simply by trying harder or “doubling down” on the previous strategy. Additional resources are required, but focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely. The key take away from this assessment is the urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way that we think and operate.

Emphases mine. I’ve spent enough time reading and analyzing it that I refuse categorically to discuss it with someone who hasn’t bothered with due diligence; I care enough about the outcome that I take it more seriously than my political allegiances*.

The bottom line is that Obama has already sent more troops to Afghanistan than President Bush did. And Obama has taken reducing the troops serving there off the table. The question now remains, will President Obama send more troops, and if so, how many? That’s a decision Obama must make in context of the entirety of the United States security needs, not just in Afghanistan. Gen. McChrystal, on the other hand, makes his recommendations with the Afghanistan theater alone in mind.

And truth to tell, there’s a very good argument for not sending any more troops – one acknowledged by McChrystal himself. ending more troops amounts to raising expectations, in the face of increasing public distaste for the war. The amount requested by McChrystal are not a panacea in themselves; to really do secure-and-hold (as opposed to secure-move on-revisit as we do now), you’d need not 40,000 more troops, but 400,000. McChrystal knows this full well, and anyone reading the report in full will understand his reasoning. In a lot of ways more troops as requested wouldn’t really improve that much on the ground, but would buy make things easier. The cost would be increased public patience ; the challenge is to find a middle ground between these opposing forces and realities. McChrystal is not only aware of these tensions but states them explicitly in his report – the number of 40,000 quoted is in my opinion a brilliant gift to the President which gives him the executive operational freedom he needs to find that balance. I’m kind of in awe.

The mission in Afghanistan does not hinge upon the number of troops sent, but on the “change in thinking” alluded to above by McChrystal. Marc Lynch lays out the case for simply “muddling through“:

Sending more troops may in fact be the right call — I’m open-minded on that question — but the attempts to bull-rush the process are problematic on their face.

“All in or get out” is a typical false choice offered by advocates of any position who support the “all in” option in question, since it’s so much easier to argue the risks of “getting out” than it is to argue against intermediate options. And as for the rush, why make such a momentous choice precisely at a moment of total political chaos in Afghanistan and the near complete absence of a legitimate partner on which to build due to the rampant fraud which eviscerated the Afghan election?

This is particularly problematic because, as the President’s advisers clearly understand, there is absolutely no reason to think that Gen. McChrystal’s current request is really “all in”. McChrystal’s review is admirably clear and quite honest that even with such changes, the policy may not succeed.

The overwhelming odds are that if the escalation option is chosen, in a year or two we will be confronting the exact same questions. More troops will once again be needed, a new strategy will once again be demanded, we’ll still be reading about how the Taliban is out-communicating us and about how the corruption of the Karzai government poses a serious challenge. And then the exact same debate will recur… the Kagans will demand more troops, dark mutterings about tensions between the administration and the generals will roil the waters, the Washington Post editorial page will publish debates where everyone is on the same side, the smart think-tankers will agonize over the tough choices but ultimately come down on the side of escalation. Might as well have this debate now, and get it right.


what’s so terrible with muddling through for a while, giving the new tactics a chance to work at the local level while preventing the worst-case scenarios from happening? Why choose between escalation or withdrawal at exactly the time when the political picture is at its least clear? Why not maintain a lousy Afghan government which doesn’t quite fall, keep the Taliban on the ropes without defeating it, cut deals where we can, and try to figture out a strategy to deal with the Pakistan part which all the smart set agrees is the real issue these days? Why not focus on applying the improved COIN tactics with available resources right now instead of focusing on more troops? If the American core objective in Afghanistan is to prevent its re-emergence as an al-Qaeda safe haven, or to prevent the Taliban from taking Kabul, those seem to be manageable at lower troop levels.

Good for the President’s team to take the time to have a serious debate about this and not give in to the politically expedient path (in either direction). The readouts on yesterday’s big Afghan strategy meeting reflect exactly what you want to see from a President making a tough call.

Let’s also note something very important here – if you are absolutely against the practice of aerial bombardment and collateral damage – which I am also strenuously on the record about – then Biden’s preferred policy (persuasively argued in the LRB by Rory Stewart) of reducing troops and relying heavily on COIN/SO alone is indeed “Chaosistan“. There’s a direct, causal inverse relationship between number of troops and collateral damage casualties. This is a paradox that no one on the left is willing to grapple with, but must factor into any principled assessment or policy prescription.

My own prediction and preference is that Obama will send more troops, in the range of 5-10,000. More importantly, the budget for Afghanistan is going to rise as the Iraq war winds down – Obama will not spend any more money in total between these two wars, but will shift the expenses from one to the other. The difference is that the same money won’t go into funding a huge force of boots on the ground (as in Iraq) but will be channeled into the “change in strategy” of which McChrystal spoke. Call it the “$urge 2.0,” because money matters as much if not more than men, this time. If politics truly stopped at the water’s edge, this would be a strategy that everyone could agree on. Unfortunately, Obama has a fight on multiple fronts, abroad and at home. McChrystal has a much easier job by far.

UPDATE: Obama is sending another 13,000 troops to Afghanistan (mostly support personnel).

*I remind the gentle reader that while I was against the Iraq War , I also was against total withdrawal .

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