President Obama’s announced decision this week to remain undecided on new troops in Afghanistan for weeks, or even months, rejects his top commander’s determination that without urgent reinforcements the war may be lost.
At yesterday’s White House press briefing, presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs reconfirmed that President Obama had not decided when a decision on a possible troop surge for Afghanistan would be reached. At issue was the forthcoming runoff election in which incumbent Hamid Karzai will compete again, after an earlier polling was apparently tainted by voting fraud.
"The UN, NATO, the US stand ready to assist the Afghans in conducting the second round," Gibbs said. He added, "Whether or not the president makes a decision before that I don’t think has been determined.
"I have continued to say a decision will be made in the coming weeks as the president goes through an examination of our policy," he added.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in his new strategy submitted to Washington Aug. 30, wrote of a "criticality of time."
And now Defense Secretary Robert Gates seems to be distancing himself from the president’s position.
In asking for new troops, McChrystal told the White House, "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."
McChrystal’s timeline began Aug. 30, meaning those critical 12 months are ticking, down to 10-1/2 months today. In other words, the four-star general is running out of time to turn the tide of battle against the resurgent Taliban.
Yet on Sunday, Rahm Emanuel, White House chief of staff, announced a significant delay in deciding whether to meet the general’s request for up to 40,000 more troops.
The White House’s latest position is that the political situation in Afghanistan must be settled first. A runoff election is set for early next month. But deciding whether the runoff has resulted in the kind of government the White House likes (and is sufficiently unencumbered by charges of election fraud) could takes weeks or months longer, leaving McChrystal little option but to do the best with the 68,000 American troops allotted.
"It would be reckless to make a decision on U.S. troop level if, in fact, you haven’t done a thorough analysis of whether, in fact, there’s an Afghan partner ready to fill that space that the U.S. troops would create and become a true partner in governing the Afghan country," Emanuel said on CNN.
But now, even Defense Secretary Robert Gates is distancing himself from Emanuel’s new requirement that Afghanistan must first be seen as a "true partner."
"I see this as a process, not something that’s going to happen all of the sudden," Gates told reporters aboard his aircraft Tuesday, according to Reuters. "I believe that the president will have to make his decisions in the context of that evolutionary process."
Gates then added that he is working to get face time with the commander in chief.
"It’s just a matter now of getting the time with the president when we can sort through these options and then tee them up for him to make a decision," Gates said.
Retired Army Gen. George Joulwan, a former NATO commander who oversaw war operations in Bosnia, told Human Events there are benefits, and dangers, to waiting.
"The pro side is trying ensure we have a reliable partner on the political side," he said. "The Afghans are the key to this thing. I would say one of the pros is to keep pressure on the Afghans to ensure they get some legitimacy in government and they start really developing a trained and professional Afghan police and military. The risk to waiting too long: The Taliban will continue to gain momentum. That to me is a huge danger."
Other military experts say the White House-imposed delay is dangerous to American troops.
"Once a commander makes a decision and it is changed by higher authority you’ve got a problem," Sam Cockerham, a retired Army general who commanded a helicopter combat brigade in Vietnam, told Human Events. "You get a morale problem. You get a focus problem. You get the troops down at a lower level, the squadron level, saying ‘why the hell am I doing this when the president doesn’t want to do it.’" McChrystal is not political. He’s is telling what has to be done if you want to win. If we can’t support Gen. McChrystal we cannot win."
Cockerham said he recalls being assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon when the chiefs were trying to get permission from the White House to hit targets just over the border in North Vietnam.
"When the generals wanted to bomb the North, it took years and years," he said of a war from which the the U.S. ultimately retreated.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, important members of both parties are urging Obama to meet McChrystal’s request.
“As General McChrystal’s assessment makes clear, time is of the essence and failure to seize the initiative risks failure," Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. "The Commander needs and has asked for additional resources to reverse Taliban momentum. “Now is the time for the Commander-in-Chief to lead. A strategy that remains in limbo is a disservice to the nearly 70,000 American sons and daughters currently serving in Afghanistan. Two weeks ago the President told Members of Congress that his decision will be timely. My hope and expectation is that the President will make a decision to provide additional resources soon and stick with it.”
Ike Skelton, the committee’s chairman, is urging the president to back his general or risking losing the war.
"He appointed the best person for this job," Skelton told MSNBC. "General Stanley McChrystal has special forces background. He knows how to fight this type of campaign. And he has made an assessment and he has made recommendations. And I certainly hope the president will heed those recommendations. I can think of no time in history when you’ve held back resources from a commander and still won the war."
Cartoon by Brett Noel