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Reading Tea Leaves on Afghanistan

The New York Times reports on the conflicting advice President Obama is getting on Afghanistan, as he considers whether to go along with commanding general Stanley McChrystal’s request for more troops. The Times story is interesting, since it is based on either 1) a dozen or more separate leaks from pretty much every member of Obama’s security team and others, or 2) a comprehensive leak from someone in the White House who, in effect, wanted to plant a story in the newspaper.
The more likely alternative is the second. The White House wants people to know that many advisers oppose McChrystal’s recommendation, presumably in order to pave the way for an Obama decision to move away from engagement in Afghanistan. Thus, whoever leaked the story tells us:

As President Obama weighs sending more troops to Afghanistan, one of the most consequential decisions of his presidency, he has discovered that the military is not monolithic in support of the plan and that some of the civilian advisers he respects most have deep reservations. …
General McChrystal is expected to ask for as many as 40,000 additional troops for the eight-year-old war, a number that has generated concern among top officers like Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, who worry about the capacity to provide more soldiers at a time of stress on the force, officials said.
Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a retired four-star Army general, visited Mr. Obama in the Oval Office this month and expressed skepticism that more troops would guarantee success, according to people briefed on the discussion. …
Mr. Powell is one of the three people, with Senator John F. Kerry and Senator Jack Reed, considered by White House aides to be most influential in this current debate.

That tells you all you need to know.

Mr. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has warned of repeating the mistakes of Vietnam, where he served, and has floated the idea of a more limited counterterrorist mission. …
In the West Wing, beyond Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has advocated an alternative strategy to the troop buildup, other presidential advisers sound dubious about more troops, including Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, and Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, according to people who have spoken with them. …
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has endorsed the idea of more troops and will be at the table representing the military. But other officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and say they admire General McChrystal nonetheless have privately expressed doubt that additional troops will make a difference. …
Advisers who have Mr. Obama’s ear have raised other questions. Mr. Powell went to see Mr. Obama for other reasons, but his remarks on Afghanistan have been cited in the White House since then. “The question the president has to answer is, ‘What will more troops do?’ ” Mr. Powell told reporters before a speech in California last week. “You have to not just add troops. You need a clear definition of your mission and then you can determine whether you need more troops or other resources.”
In an interview, Senator Kerry, who met with Admiral Mullen last week, said that he had not made up his mind about the troop buildup but “we have to ask some very tough questions about that, questioning the underlying assumptions.” In Vietnam, he said, “the underlying assumptions were flawed, and the number of troops weren’t going to make a difference.”

The moral of the story seems pretty clear: when President Obama announces that he doesn’t intend to accept General McChrystal’s recommendation, we will all understand that this is the prudent course advocated by most knowledgeable military and civilian leaders.

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