The Washington Post presents a detailed version of the lengthy process that finally resulted in President Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. The early paragraphs track the White House’s self-congratulatory line that Obama’s close attention to detail resulted in the speeding up of troop deployment, thus creating a true “surge.”
This is consistent with Obama’s attempt, in his speech at West Point, to excuse the three months it took him to make a decision. He claimed that the process didn’t really delay anything because the plan Gen. McChrystal presented to him would not have deployed troops rapidly enough. In other words, any delay in decision-making was offset by the quality of the decision. The problem with this argument is that, if the McChrystal plan truly was defective on this count, that defect could have been cured without a three month review process. Thus, the president’s dithering cannot be excused on this ground.
Deeper into the Post’s article, we learn the real reason for the dithering: It turns out that, Gen. McChrystal’s proposal was based on instructions from the White House that Obama probably never believed in and certainly did not believe in when McChrystal presented his plan. If true, this reflects gross incompetence on the part of the administration.
According to the Post, the review process began in the second week of September. But McCrystal was not looped into the discussion until October 8. At that time, he made it clear that his mission was to “defeat the Taliban and secure the population.” This mission statement was challenged immediately by the administration on the grounds that it is impossible to defeat the Taliban. McChrystal noted, however, that this was precisely the mission he had been given, as enshrined in the Strategic Implementation Plan signed off on by the administration in March. Indeed, President Obama had said at that time that the U.S. would “defeat the the terrorists who oppose us.”
According to the Post, Obama and his team conceded at an October 9 meeting that McChrystal’s plan reflected what he had been told was his mission. He concluded, though, that the mission should be redefined. Naturally, this meant significant adjustment to McChrystal’s plan.
In short, the three-month delay occurred mostly because the White House had given McChrystal one mission and then decided to pursue a different one. In addition, nearly a month of delay is attributable to the time it took Obama and crew to figure out that it no longer agreed with the mission it had given McChrystal – the one on which his plan was based. This, in turn, was due to the delay in actually hearing from McChrystal.
If the Bush administration had been this incompetent, we can be sure the Post would have led with that story. The headline probably would have read: “Confusion over Afghan mission led to months of delay” or something to that effect. But because this is the Obama administration, the headline reads: “Obama pressed for faster surge.” The Post, in short, would rather downplay a scoop than damage Obama.
Finally, the Post’s story suggests that Obama wanted a fast surge at least in large part because he wants a fast withdrawal. From his perspective this makes sense – you can’t remotely justify beginning a pullout in July 2011 unless you complete the surge by mid 2010. The Post characterizes Obama’s objection to the McCrystal plan this way: “it took too long to get and too long to get out.” And, revealingly, when Obama told the military to go back to the drawing board and find a way to get more troops in more quickly, his comment (according to the Post) was “I don’t want to be going to Walter Reed [Hospital] for another eight years.”
It is not surprising that Obama would find ti difficult to support a surge except as a means of speeding up a withdrawal. Whether this thought process has produced an optimal strategy for succeeding in Afghanistan – whatever success means now that Obama has defined it down – is another matter.
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