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Sep 22, 2009 | 01:54 GMT

5 mins read

McChrystal and the Search for a Strategy in Afghanistan

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
THE WASHINGTON POST published U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's initial assessment of the campaign in Afghanistan late Sunday night. On Monday, the headline in that paper read: "McChrystal: More Troops or 'Mission Failure.'" McChrystal is the senior commander in Afghanistan, and the report is a classified analysis (the published version included redactions for operational security) that has been submitted to the Obama administration. On the surface, the headline seemed to capture it all: The senior commander in Afghanistan has made his operational need clear to his commander-in-chief, and it will be very difficult for the Obama administration to deny him more troops. But there are far more important details behind the headlines. Reports such as these are not the result of ill-considered statements. By the time the public sees something like this — even when "leaked" — it is almost always the product of extensive consultations and internal discussions. Not only were the White House and the Pentagon almost certain to have been intimately familiar with the key tenets of the report before the final draft reached the National Security Council, but it was "leaked" to Bob Woodward — perhaps the highest-profile investigative reporter in Washington. The leak, in other words, was designed for maximum publicity. The most important point is that, though optimistic in places, nowhere does the report say that with more troops the United States will win the war in Afghanistan — or even how many more soldiers would be necessary to achieve victory. In the report, McChrystal lays out a counterinsurgency-focused strategy (or at the very least, the portions he has already begun to implement) and argues that more manpower and resources will be necessary to pursue it. To our eye, the key excerpt reads: "The greater resources will not be sufficient to achieve success, but will enable implementation of the new strategy. Conversely, inadequate resources will likely result in failure. However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced." There is far more than an unequivocal request for reinforcements here. The serving commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan is saying that without more troops, the mission likely will fail. There is no ambiguity here. This alone is worth noting. But the most important point to take from the report is that, though optimistic in places, nowhere does it say that with more troops the United States will win the war in Afghanistan — or even how many more soldiers would be necessary to achieve victory. (The complete report, without redaction, might contain actual numbers; meanwhile, a formal and detailed request for troops and resources is expected at a later date.) Adding to this is the logical inference and the implicit statement it entails: President Barack Obama has now been advised by the commanding general of the Afghan campaign that the current strategy cannot win, and the implication of the caveat not to resource the mission without a new strategy is that McChrystal — by most accounts a very sharp and capable commander — will not command them without a new strategy. This is a statement by an officer of the modern U.S. Army, an institution with a broad disdain for the legacy of Gen. William Westmoreland. As first commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam (1964-1968) and then Army chief of staff (1968-72), Westmoreland's legacy has come to be seen as that of having asked for more and more American troops without a winning strategy. In other words, he continued to commit more American soldiers to a conflict without a strategy that had any real chance for success. While one can debate the history, many in the U.S. Army's officer corps today consider Westmoreland an officer who did the ultimate disservice to his country — and perhaps more importantly, to his men — by allowing a failed political and military strategy to continue to consume American lives. To the modern U.S. Army officer, he should have resigned over the matter. With this report, McChrystal has clearly differentiated himself from this path. But whether the strategy McChrystal has laid out in this report can be executed properly by a realistic number of troops compatible with the existing force structure and current U.S. Army and Marine deployment practices is not clear. Far from an unequivocal request for committing more troops, McChrystal's report has articulated the importance of aligning two fundamental considerations: forces committed and an achievable strategy compatible with those forces. Therefore, he appears to be laying the foundation for a profound shift in the mission and force structure in Afghanistan. It should not be assumed at this juncture that such a shift entails more troops and a redoubled commitment to the mission in Afghanistan as it exists today.

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