General McChrystal lost his command Tuesday after he and his aids made disrespectful remarks about the President, Vice President and civilian officials that were published in Rolling Stone Magazine. The entire political-media establishment has piled on, in unanimous criticism of McChrystal. But what about Obama and his team? Were they part of the problem?
Such a blatant breach of military protocol by a highly regarded, over-achieving, career military officer is a symptom of serious problems that won’t be solved by the single act of replacing McChrystal. President Obama was correct that Military officers must respect and submit to civilian control.
However the President, Vice President and high Administration officials also have an obligation. Their obligation is to do everything in their power to help the military succeed and to avoid allowing petty politics to increase the risks of casualties and mission failure.
One obvious cause of tension was President Obama’s publicly time table for withdrawal, announced to the whole world, including the terrorist enemies in Afghanistan.
On December 1, 2009 Obama announced his Afghanistan, counter-terrorism strategy in a speech at West Point. Some excerpts from that speech:
The 30,000 additional troops that I’m announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010…so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers…they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans
…these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.
Apparently Obama hoped his leftist, anti-war base would be less angry about a troop surge if he set a date for withdrawal. Vice President Biden, who opposed sending additional troops, backed up the July, 2011 “transfer out” part with this widely quoted assurance:
In July of 2011, you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out, bet on it.
On the ground in Afghanistan, the President’s rush to announce a withdrawal date just a few seconds after he disclosed the troop surge was seen as a sign that America lacked resolve and could not be depended upon for the long term. Counterinsurgency strategy depends upon forming relationships with local people who then provide critical intelligence. But the locals risk violent retaliation from the Taliban and Al Qaeda if they help our troops. Even if they want us to succeed they are reluctant to risk the lives of their families if they fear America might abandon the fight and leave them defenseless, facing resurgent terrorists.
Establishment commentators say that Obama’s speech was “nuanced” and wasn’t really a firm withdrawal date. But if you’re a fearful farmer or shop keeper in Afghanistan, putting your children’s lives on the line you need clear, unambiguous language, not nuance.
On Thursday, a reporter asked President Obama about the withdrawal date and he took a step toward modifying his position by contradicting his December announcement.
What we said [last December] was we would put in additional troops to provide the time and the space for the Afghan government to build up its security capabilities…and that beginning next year we would begin a transition phase in which the Afghan government is taking more and more responsibility for its own security.
Here’s what we did not say: we did not say that starting July, 2011 there would be no more troops from the United States…we said we would begin a transition phase…
This was an improvement, but didn’t go far enough. Obama should give American troops the benefit of a firm, unambiguous commitment to crushing the Taliban and Al Qaeda, no matter how long it takes. He can both reassure the Afghan people and discourage potential Taliban/Al Qaeda recruits by pointing to our recent success in Iraq to demonstrate our determination to prevail.
He should stop equivocating and replicate President Bush’s unwavering commitment to victory. When Bush ordered the Iraq surge at the beginning of 2007 he refused to set a time table for withdrawal, even though the entire political-media establishment demanded it. As a result, our troops in Iraq were able to gain the trust of Iraqi people who then helped them exterminate Al Qaeda in Iraq.
We would be far better off if the world’s dictators, thugs and terrorists became convinced that if America chooses to fight them they will face certain defeat, because we will not give up, no matter how long it takes. In Iraq, Bush made a good start at convincing them. Obama can complete the job in Afghanistan if he has the will to succeed.