What a mess

Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that the administration’s delay in formulating a new strategy for Afghanistan was caused in part by confusion over the mission. President Obama had given Gen. McChrystal one concept of the mission in March, McChrystal had developed a new strategy based on that mission over the summer, but the White House opted in September for a new, somewhat different concept of the mission. Thus, the administration had to return to the drawing board, and its plan was not unveiled until December.
Now, after Obama has announced the new strategy and it is being implemented, the Post reports that there is still serious disagreement about just what the strategy is. According to the Post, the military sees its mission as mounting a comprehensive counterinsurgency operation, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale than origiinally envisaged.
But apparently many within the White House don’t see the strategy that way. For example, Joe Biden has said that “the strategy has fundamentally changed” and that “this is not a COIN [counterinsurgency] strategy.” It is not clear, at least from the Post’s report, exactly what the new strategy is if not a somewhat scaled-back version of the counterinsurgency strategy that McChrystal originally proposed. What is clear is that even after nearly a year of back and forth, the folks who count still are not on the same page when it comes to fighting this war.
The Post suggests that part of the gap between the military’s view of its mission and that of the White House stems from the military’s commitment to counterinsurgency. In this account, the military is straining to bend the mission back in the direction of what McChrystal wanted all along, a direction the White House has not really embraced.
But the real problem appears to be what the Post calls “ambiguity over the meaning of the July 2011 deadline” for beginning the withdrawal. And the fault for this clearly lies with the administration. At times, administration spokemen have indicated that a serious drawdown will begin in July 2011. At other times, they have made it sound, instead, as if the drawdown will be less drastic and more contingent on conditions on the ground. Thus, one senior military officer in Afghanistan is quoted by the Post as saying that he and his fellow soldiers “don’t know if this is all over in 18 months or whether this is just a progress report that leads to minor changes.”
Under these circumstances, it is understandable that the military is resolving the White House’s ambiguity in favor of trying to win the war they have been tasked with fighting. Indeed, Secretary of Defense Gates has stated that “we are in this thing to win” and that “from a moral perspective, when you ask soldiers and families to sacrifice, we do that to win.”
Yet, Obama did not use either the word “win” or the word “victory” in his speech at West Point in which he announced the new strategy. And he has said he is uncomfortable using the term “victory” in the context of the fight against “non-state actors.”
The real problem, then, seems to be this: from the military’s perspective, fighting a war for any reason other than to win makes no sense, but from Obama’s perspective it makes no sense to fight this war to win. The administration, though, isn’t quite prepared to tell the military (or the nation as a whole) that we should not to fight to win. So it sends mixed signals and hopes for the best.
This is a recipe for disaster.

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