Defense & National Security

The Obama-McChrystal Gap

What is the life of an American soldier worth?  President Obama apparently values it as little as he values defeating our enemies in Afghanistan.

The gap between President Obama’s thinking on Afghanistan and that of his chosen commander there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has grown from a crevice to a canyon.  Unless President Obama is quickly brought to understand the need to defeat the Taliban decisively, he will make a decision on strategy and troop reinforcements that will be catastrophic to our national security.

The contrast between the two is stark.

In his August 30 report, McChrystal wrote:

First, this is not an annual cyclical campaign of kinetics driven by an insurgent “fighting season.” Rather, it is a year-round struggle, often conducted with little apparent violence, to win the support of the people.  Protecting the population from insurgent coercion and intimidation demands a persistent presence and focus that cannot be interrupted without risking serious setback.

Second, and more importantly, we face both a short and long-term fight. The long-term fight will require patience and commitment, but I believe the short-term fight will be decisive. 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.

Obama has already wasted more than a month of the year McChrystal characterized as decisive, seeking a new strategy that will avoid both a troop surge and responsibility for losing Afghanistan and, in turn, nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Trial balloons floating out of the White House indicate that Obama’s goal is merely to prevent the Taliban from again taking control of Afghanistan.  One report says that he would tolerate the Taliban’s participation in Afghanistan’s government, possibly akin to the terrorist Hizballah organization’s membership in the Lebanese parliament.   The fact that Hizballah is Iranian-funded and based in Syria – continuing its insurgency in Lebanon and terrorism against Israel – apparently eludes Obama’s understanding.

Obama disdains victory.  On July 29, in a Nightline interview, President Obama was asked to define “victory” in Afghanistan. He answered, “I’m always worried about using the word "victory" because, you know, it invokes this notion of Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur.”  He wants to fine-tune our military action there, spending some lives and some money to achieve some undefinable result.

Obama’s thinking was aired by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs last Thursday. Gibbs said that our spendthrift president was “mindful” of the monetary cost.  One reporter pressed Gibbs:

Q: So cost is a factor?

MR. GIBBS: Well, it’s something we certainly have to be mindful of. We don’t have unlimited money. We certainly don’t have unlimited troops. And as we go forward, there — I’m not saying this is the determining factor, by any means, but understanding that as we have a discussion about our spending and our deficits, and how they relate to our fiscal health, certainly the amount of money that we spend overseas has always played a role in that and I assume will continue to do so.

But what war is worth one life but not two? Which victory – that which costs a billion dollars – is worth less than a defeat that costs but a million? How do you calculate the value of the way of life you defend? I am reminded of the opening scene in “Patton” in which Gen. Omar Bradley surveys the devastating defeat American forces suffered at the Kasserine Pass in North Africa in 1943.  Bradley’s aide pronounces the toll in tanks, guns, G.I. socks and almost 2000 lives. 

But then – instead of saying it’s too much to pay to beat the Germans – Bradley says he wants the toughest commander to whip the beaten army into shape. 

Picture Obama and Biden standing there in place of Bradley and his aide.  They chose  McChrystal to take charge and invested 20,000 more troops in Afghanistan earlier this year.  And now they balk at McChrystal’s report which also says, “Resources will not win this war, but under-resourcing could lose it.”

But winning and losing are academic concepts to Obama: he is seeking a strategy that will not dissatisfy his generals and still comfort the European accomodationists who awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize.  He dithers while the clock runs down on McChrystal’s decisive year.

Obama either doesn’t understand – or, worse – doesn’t take seriously McChrystal’s report when it says, “While not a war in the conventional sense, the conflict in Afghanistan demands a similar focus and an equal level of effort, and the consequences of failing are just as grave.”

Obama is neither smarter nor more politically astute than his generals.  He tried to snooker McChrystal by requiring the general to send three options for Afghanistan catalogued as “low”, “moderate” and “high” risk.  That way, he thought, he could accept a lower number of troops to be sent and still say that he followed McChrystal’s advice.

But the general – seeing through that (according to a senior House member who I spoke to last week) – beat the president at his own game.  The “moderate” risk plan McChrystal submitted is the number the general really wants, about 40,000 more troops.  The “high” risk recommendation is anything substantially less than that and the “low” risk plan is for much more than the general thinks is needed (about 60,000 more troops).

Which leaves Obama – not McChrystal – with two choices, neither of which he wants.  First would be to give McChrystal what he wants and decide to fight a long war.  Alternatively, Obama can decide to go against McChrystal and risk losing both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In his classic work, “Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice,” the late David Galula wrote, “…an insurgency is a protracted struggle conducted methodically, step by step, in order to attain specific intermediate objectives leading finally to the overthrow of the existing order.”  (emphasis in original).  Afghanistan, according to Galula’s criteria of size, shape, population and economy, is nearly the ideal nation in which an insurgency can succeed. 

I am as sure that McChrystal has read Galula as I am that Obama has not.  This president won’t stand and fight for long, if at all.  He has delayed too long in deciding whether to accept the general’s recommendation or declare a strategy of his own design.  Obama cannot delay much longer.

One friend, a former Marine who served in Vietnam, once told me that the reason we lost there is simple: the North Vietnamese wanted to win more than we did.  Lyndon Johnson didn’t have the heart to do what is necessary to win.  Barack Obama doesn’t even see the need.

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