White House Irked at McChrystal

The White House is becoming increasingly irked at its most important general — Stanley McChrystal, the four-star running President Obama’s war in Afghanistan.

Obama dispatched McChrystal to Afghanistan in June to defeat the Taliban under a White House strategy adopted in March and with 21,000 extra troops.

Instead, the White House has watched as McChrystal essentially tore up the March plan and replaced it with his own — one requiring as much as 40,000 more troops.

The McChrystal way would wipe out a big chunk of the administration’s projected defense budget savings and draw Obama deeper into a war, as opposed to candidate Obama who ran on making peace.

Today, Washington sees a White House determined to cut the Pentagon budget running up against a hardened special operations soldier who does not want to be known as the general who lost Afghanistan. McChrystal firmly believes he needs more troops to re-take and control territory held by a resurgent Taliban.

It is not only his plan that irks the White House. It’s the way McChrystal has gone about selling it — in public:

  • Asked on "60 Minutes" how often he had spoken with Obama since he took commander, McChrystal answered once. He could have finessed the question, referring to all the consultations he has had with other leaders. Instead, his answer had the White House on the defensive. It forced Obama to fit McChrystal into 25 minutes of his schedule during a trip to Denmark last week.
  • McChrystal’s new strategy report was leaked to Bob Woodward. Obama allies suspect McChrystal’s staff leaked it in a campaign to win more troops. The report bluntly rejected the new Obama strategy and said more troops were needed to stave off defeat.
  • McChrystal delivered a passionate speech in London Oct. 1 on the need to adopt his strategy. In the process, he rejected an idea from Vice President Joe Biden to remove troops from Afghanistan and turn the mission into al Qaeda-hunting in Pakistan. The White House saw it as a direct rebuttal to it, although Defense Secretary Robert Gates had said much the same thing last week. Asked in London if Biden’s plan would work, McChrystal said, "The short answer is no. A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a short-sighted strategy." He added, "We have under-resourced our operations." 

There you have it. A long "60 Minutes" interview. A leaked report. A high-profile speech in London. To some in the White House, that adds up to a publicity campaign, even insubordination.

And it has prompted pundits to speculate McChrystal is at war with the White House and will quit if he does not get his way. But a former Pentagon official involved Afghan policy said there is no war. His London speech had been planned months before he submitted his confidential plan.

"I don’t believe for a second that Stanley McChrystal intended to influence in anyway the decision making process in the White House except, directly, by using the chain of command," the former official told HUMAN EVENTS. "I believe much of this is an overreaction and certainly not a threat to civil control of the military. Stanley McChrystal has already been told to execute a counter-insurgency strategy by the March 09 directive, which he agrees with, and we should therefore expect him to be an advocate for it. If McChrystal knew weeks or months ago, when he accepted the speech request, that this White House review would be taking place the same week, am confident he would not have accepted."

But James Jones, Obama’s national security adviser and a retired four-star Marine who oversaw operations in Afghanistan, did not hide his frustration with McChrystal’s public statements.

"Ideally, it’s better for military advice to come up through the chain of command," Jones said Sunday on CNN. "I think that General McChrystal and the others in the chain of command will present the president with not just one option, which does, in fact, tend to have a, you know, enforcing function, but a range of options that the president can consider."

The next day, Defense Secretary Robert Gates piled on with a no-so veiled message to McChrystal.

"Afghanistan has been on a different, and worrisome, trajectory — with violence levels up some 60 percent from last year," he told an Army convention in Washington. "I believe that the decisions that the president will make for the next stage of the Afghanistan campaign will be among the most important of his presidency. So it is important that we take our time do all we can to get this right. And in this process it is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations — civilian and military alike — provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately. And speaking for the Department of Defense, once the commander-in-chief makes his decisions, we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability."

Meanwhile, Obama’s staff continues to prepare the public for a presidential "no" on more troops. Jones repeatedly said Sunday during two TV appearances that more personnel is not the final answer.

"It would be, I think, unfortunate if we let the discussion just be about troop strength" he said. "There is a minimum level that you have to have that there’s unfortunately no ceiling to it.

McChrystal’s blunt report made it clear he wants more troops.

"Success is achievable, but it will not be attained simply by trying harder or ‘doubling down’ on the previous strategy," he wrote. "Additional resources [read troops] are required, but focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely. The key take away from this assessment is the urgent need for significant change to our strategy and the way that we think and operate."

In his London speech, McChrystal tackled this fundamental question: why eight years into the war is the U.S. in danger of losing? His answer: " The insurgency grew.  Expectations — both expected and unexpected — were not met, which has created frustration.  It took us longer than I wish it had to recognize this as a serious insurgency. As the Taliban started to regain its effectiveness, we lagged in terms of accepting that as a clear reality."

He added, "We said that we would protect [Afghans], but we did not.  Sometimes, then, the most horrific events caused by the insurgents continue to reinforce in the minds of the Afghan people a mindset that coalition forces are either ineffective, or at least that their presence in Afghanistan is not in their interest.  That does not happen all of the time.  There are times when they feel differently, but you have to put things in that context to understand what we must do."

"A villager recently asked me whether we intended to remain in his village and provide security, to which I confidently promised him that, of course, we would.  He looked at me and said, ‘Okay, but you did not stay last time.’ "

At the White House press briefing Monday, spokesman Robert Gibbs would not sway from the line that Obama is happy with "the process" of judging new strategies, nor would he disclose what the president and  his most important general discussed last Friday.

"General McChrystal had a chance to spend time with the president on Friday," Gibbs said. "The president thought it was a very constructive meeting, that General McChrystal was doing through this assessment exactly what the President had asked him to do when he hired him to go to Afghanistan and assess where we were."

Cartoon by Brett Noel.