Obama Shouldn't Tell Generals to Shut Up and Obey Orders

The Afghanistan commander warned his political master that “Our soldiers are not to blame.  They’ve fought incredibly bravely in adverse conditions… [But] without a lot more men, this war will continue for a very, very long time.”  

This wasn’t an exchange between Gen. Stanley McChrystal, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and President Obama at last Friday’s White House strategy meeting, but it could portend a future meeting.  Rather, the speaker was Gen. Sergei Akhromeyev, the commander of the Soviet armed forces, testifying before the Soviet Union’s Politburo in 1986 to explain why 110,000 Russian soldiers were losing in Afghanistan.

Russian generals warned their politicians to abandon the Afghan mission from the start.  Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, then-chief of the Soviet defense staff, warned in December 1979 that an Afghan invasion “…could mire us in unfamiliar, difficult conditions and would align the entire Islamic east against us.”  But defense minister Dmitri Ustinov rejected the general’s advice.  “Are the generals now making policy in the Soviet Union,” asked Ustinov.  “Your job is to plan specific operations and carry them out …. Shut up and obey orders.”  Russia abandoned Afghanistan in Feb. 1989 after losing 15,000 soldiers.

The circumstances of our war in Afghanistan may be different from those that led to Russia’s invasion but the political lesson is applicable.  American political leaders shouldn’t expect their generals to just “Shut up and obey orders.”  

President Obama needs his generals’ counsel as much as their obedience, but it appears he is ignoring that wisdom to dangerously swerve out of his lane and into the generals’ war fighting business.  The president should set his sights on developing a much-needed global strategy rather than playing field general.

In June, Obama handpicked Gen. McChrystal, a counterinsurgency expert, as his new Afghanistan commander. The president gave McChrystal 60 days to assess the battlefield situation and to report back. More than three months after that report arrived in Washington, Obama is still dithering with the general’s assessment.  

Obama has chaired seven meetings to review McCrystal’s assessment of the Afghanistan war.  His review team once included non-partisan experts — intelligence officials, generals, and professional diplomats. But recently, Obama culled that team to a handful of senior appointees like White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s primary political adviser.    

Last week, according to the Washington Post, Obama’s political-centric review team asked for a province-by-province analysis of Afghanistan to guide the decision on additional troops to send to the battle.  This is a no confidence vote for McCrystal’s assessment and evidence, as a senior military official told the Post, of “…a 5,000-mile screwdriver tinkering from Washington.”

Apparently, the president politicized his review team because he smelled disaster and doesn’t want to be remembered for Afghanistan the way President Lyndon Johnson is for Vietnam.  Obama’s war review team is now picking apart McCrystal’s proposal trying to create a minimalist strategy that cuts losses and gets us out of Afghanistan before the next presidential election no matter the consequences.

But this is dangerous political ground for Obama because his Afghan policy is growing unpopular and the public doesn’t like him second guessing the battlefield commander.  A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal (pdf) poll found that only 47 percent of Americans support sending more troops to Afghanistan yet 62 percent believe McCrystal’s view should trump Obama’s in deciding how many troops to send to battle.

Worse, Obama’s protracted and wrong lane strategy decision process comes with a cost.  It makes him appear weak, indecisive and allies are beginning to wonder whether he has the vision and tenacity needed for the Afghan fight or, for that matter, any fight.  This hurts America’s stand in the world and makes us less secure.

In March, Obama gave McChrystal the mission “…to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” The general analyzed that mission to conclude it requires a counterinsurgency “…that takes from the insurgent that what he cannot afford to lose — control of the population.”  Therefore, McChrystal’s assessment sent to Obama identifies the center of gravity in Afghanistan as the population which is the basis for asking for more troops.  He proposes to secure the urban centers — like Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, and Herat — and then win the Afghan population’s trust.  

But McChrystal’s focus on population centers is contradicted by a Rand study commissioned by the Secretary of Defense in 2008.  That study, “Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan,” concludes “The counterinsurgency in Afghanistan will be won or lost in the local communities of rural Afghanistan not in urban centers such as Kabul.”  This suggests McChrystal’s focus on the population centers fails to go far enough and that perhaps he really needs to secure the entire country, which would require many times the 40,000 additional troops requested.  

Obama has a clear choice.  He can accept McChrystal’s strategy (realizing the average successful counterinsurgency lasts 14 years) and add troops even though it will be costly in blood and treasure. Alternatively, if the price is too high, Obama can withdraw our forces from Afghanistan.  But he should not force McChrystal to embrace a politically inspired minimalist strategy — too few troops and a confused mission — because that would guarantee a repeat of the 1980s Russian debacle.

What America needs most from Obama is for him to articulate a long-overdue global strategy that addresses violent extremism. That strategy is critical to our fight in Afghanistan as well as other global hot spots.

Obama should take advice from retired Gen. Richard Myers, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who outlined a three part global strategy roadmap to defeat violent extremism.  Myers warns, “America’s security is at risk; it’s time to develop this strategy now.”

First, identify the adversary.  Myers says “We are dealing with disparate groups of violent extremists united for convenience to advance their own agendas” and “Afghanistan is just one of the tactical fights in the larger global insurgency.”  Myers explains the enemy’s ultimate goal “…is to limit America’s influence so that their extreme view of Islam can be the basis for governance – ideally, a global Caliphate [Islamic government].”

Second, Myers says the global strategy must involve all elements of power (military, political-diplomatic, economic and educational-informational).  Until now military power has been dominant in our global struggle with Islamic extremists.  But to be successful that must change because military action alone “…may poison the dialogue within the Muslim world.”  Only the president can get the entire government engaged in the global fight.

Finally, America can’t fight alone.  We have differences with our allies regarding the way we see the problem.  We need a “common definition of the adversary” if we “…are to lead the international community in a strategy for making our world safer.” We need a strategy that recruits more allies to the common cause.

President Obama should spend his time advancing a global strategy against Islamic extremists and give Gen. McChrystal what he needs to do the Afghan mission or withdraw our forces and accept the consequences.   But stop the political dithering with our security.