The Pentagon’s pre-emptive strike came with the leak of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s confidential review of the Afghan war to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post.
McChrystal’s painting of the military picture was grim.
"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."
If I don’t get the troops to reverse the Taliban gains, said McChrystal, we face "mission failure." A Saigon ending to the Afghan war. Word was quickly out that McChrystal wanted 40,000 troops, to bring U.S. force levels to 110,000 and coalition forces to 140,000.
Last week, a three-hour review was held at the White House. McChrystal participated by teleconference. His strategy — fight a counterinsurgency against the Taliban by taking and holding population centers, protecting the Afghan people and building up Kabul’s army, economy and government — was challenged.
Among those urging a smaller U.S. footprint and a strategic shift from fighting the Taliban to killing al-Qaida in Pakistan with drone and Special Forces strikes was Joe Biden.
McChrystal answered Biden in a speech and Q-and-A session in London, all but saying Joe ought to stick to the rubber-chicken circuit and leave war to the warriors. A "counter-terrorist focus" like the Biden strategy, said McChrystal, would lead straight to "Chaos-istan."
Would he support it?
"The short answer is no," said McChrystal. "Waiting does not prolong a favorable outcome. This effort will not remain winnable indefinitely, and nor will public support" — a shot at what critics are calling Obama’s dithering in deciding on McChrystal’s troop request.
Obama, said to be "furious," called McChrystal to Copenhagen for a 25-minute face-to-face on Air Force One.
Yet McChrystal is now quoted in Newsweek about any half measures to reverse a deteriorating situation. "You can’t hope to contain the fire by letting just half the building burn."
Sunday, National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones said of the McChrystal-Obama meeting, "I am sure they exchanged direct views."
Jones went on to suggest McChrystal’s recommendations were merely the general’s "own opinion" of "what he thinks his role within that strategy is." Other factors must go into the final decisions on strategy and force levels. Among them, said Jones, is the election debacle in Kabul that made Tehran’s vote look like Iowa.
Jones tossed ice water on McChrystal’s urgency. Afghanistan is "in no imminent danger of falling to the Taliban," and al-Qaida has "less than 100" fighters in the country, "no bases, no buildings to launch attacks either on us or our allies."
As for McChrystal’s public campaign, said Jones, "It’s better for military advice to come up through the chain of command."
Concentrating the minds of all on Sunday was news that 10 U.S. soldiers were killed, two by an Afghan solider, eight when their remote outpost near Pakistan was attacked by hundreds of Taliban.
As Obama approaches the pivotal decision of his presidency, here is where the major players seem to be lining up.
McChrystal believes so strongly in the need for 40,000 troops he could resign his command if denied them. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Michael Mullen seems to be in the McChrystal camp.
Gen. David Petraeus, regional commander for Afghanistan and Iraq, has yet to commit himself. But as architect of the surge in Iraq, he would seem to support McChrystal. What Petraeus will do, if the McChrystal request is denied, is the big question in Washington. For Petraeus reportedly sees himself as a presidential candidate.
From her own words, Hillary is with McChrystal: "Some people say, well, al-Qaida’s no longer in Afghanistan. If Afghanistan were taken over by the Taliban, I can’t tell you how fast al-Qaida would be back in Afghanistan."
This challenges what Gen. Jones said Sunday when he minimized the al-Qaida threat in Afghanistan and the Taliban threat to Kabul.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates will be a key player. It was he who relieved Gen. David McKiernan of his command in May, saying we need "fresh thinking," and turned Afghanistan over to McChrystal, whom he described as a soldier who shared the perspective of Petraeus. Can Gates come down against the general he appointed only months ago?
Yet Biden is not alone. Jones is receptive to his views, as are a majority of Obama’s party on the Hill, as are White House aides who see Afghanistan as Obama’s Vietnam, as is most of the nation.
Obama is thus being told by the McChyrstal camp: If you do not send the 40,000, you lose the war and the presidency. He is being told by the Biden camp: If you send the 40,000, Afghanistan will be your Vietnam; you will not win it by 2012; and you will lose the presidency.
Look for Obama, not a natural Decider, to split the difference and send a few thousand U.S. troops to train the Afghan army.