Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - The Who's In Charge Version
Posted by Michael Cohen
I've been meaning for a few days to write something about Michael Crowley's piece in the New Republic about troop increases in Afghanistan and how it unintentionally demonstrates precisely how screwed up civil-military relations are in this country. RIght on cue, the massive leak of Gen. McChrystal's strategic review does a nice job of making the case for me.
Crowley's argument is predicated on the notion that the current Administration is subverting the will of the military by placing political constraints on the number of troops they can request - i.e trying to fight the war on the cheap. But in fact the exact opposite is occurring - it's members of the military who are trying to subvert the will of the country's elected leaders.
First, we all have to recognize that every general - from time immemorial - has wanted more troops. And considering that Gen. McChrystal is trying to fight a troop-intensive counter-insurgency operation his desire for additional soldiers is obvious. But the job of the civilian leadership is to determine strategy and to balance military requests with political realities.
That was almost certainly the context behind Jones WTF moment back in July with Marine officers in Afghanistan. And yet ever since then the military was been none too quietly lobbying for the US to send more troops to Afghanistan. As I've argued repeatedly in the AMCW, the President announced a policy of defeating, disrupting and dismantling al Qaeda that evolved into a much more expansive policy of nation-building and counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. And it wasn't the civilian leadership pushing that particular version of mission creep.
Via a policy of selective leaking to prominent media outlets, the military has further constrained the President's options, by making this entire debate one about more troops vs. less troops, rather than the current counter-insurgency strategy vs. a different one.
The notion, expressed in Crowley's piece, that "there is pressure being brought on generals" by the White House has it precisely backwards. Looking at the situation over the past five months, it is the military that is putting pressure on the WH for more troops!
That brings us to today: the selective leak today to Bob Woodward of McChrystal's strategic review, which ominously warns, "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."
How is this not a crystal clear example of the military playing politics or at the very least using a pliant media to push its agenda and force the President's hand on troop increases? I'll have more to say about McChrystal's review later, but this should be lesson number one in precisely how screwed up civil-military relations are in this country.
Look for example at the lead story over the New York Times:
General Calls for More U.S. Troops to Avoid Afghan Failure
Appalling I tell you. Absolutely appalling. So much for the President's own internal review of Afghan policy. Now if he wants to change course in Afghanistan he is going to have to disagree with his own top general, who has very flagrantly and very publicly shown his hand.
Finally, what exactly is wrong with the President taking into account political and public opinion considerations when making military decisions? The success of any military intervention relies at least in some measure on the support of the electorate. Conservatives love to argue that when it comes to matters of national security, Presidents should ignore polls and do what they think is right. But this is a simplistic argument, because public support for a US military intervention is essential to its success. The pro-surge folks will argue that Bush's disregarding of polls in 2007 "saved" Iraq. It's a debatable point, but in the process Bush's refusal to consider public opinion a) destroyed the Republican Party politically and b) limited President Obama's strategic options in Afghanistan. Generals have the luxury of ignoring public opinion or, at the very least, disregarding it; president don't. And that's part of the reason why we should be glad that we live in a democracy with a well-established principle of civilian control of the military.
It's the job of politicians to balance politics and strategy. It's the job of the military to give advice, but then follow orders and fight wars. But these days it feels like the nation's generals are not only making strategic decisions, but trying to force the hand of our elected leaders.