Today’s Bob Woodward scoop regarding General Stanley McChrystal’s report about the status of the war in Afghanistan is both unsurprising and provocative. McChrystal’s assessment was about as expected. As I reported last week, McChrystal was bequeathed a flawed battle plan by his predecessor David McKiernan–too much chasing after bad guys, not enough protection of the Afghan population. McChrystal wants an unspecified number of additional troops to do the latter–that is, to focus on a counterinsurgency strategy.McChrystal’s implicit emphasis is on Kandahar province, where Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura Taliban (QET) is most active and the struggle to secure Kandahar city and its suburbs looms as the greatest challenge. Also not surprising. What’s missing is context: You could add 100,000 troops and the effort would be futile if the Afghan political mess is not resolved–and quickly. What’s also missing is intelligence about the other side of the border: will the Pakistanis finally shut down the Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar Taliban groups operating on the southeast border–to say nothing of Mullah Omar’s shura (which the Pakistan military helped create and may still support).
What’s provocative about the report is that it was leaked to Woodward–a serious breach of conduct by someone, possibly in the military (or a supporter the military’s position). This was an effort to lobby a quick decision on troop strength–which the military wants, so that it can begin planning the 2010 fighting season in Afghanistan. But a quick decision is not a good idea right now.
The President needs to know what the next Afghan governmnet is going to look like–will there be a runoff between Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah? If Karzai still manages to score more than 50% after the phony ballots are tossed, will Abdullah and other Karzai opponents endorse the Karzai government? What sort of moves will Karzai make to restore some confidence in his government? Are the Canadians going to stay in Kandarhar Province, are the British going to stay in Helmand? Are the Dutch and Australians going to stay in Uruzgan?
Obama was absolutely right on the Sunday talk shows: troop levels aren’t nearly as important as strategy. He has, at most, one more shot at getting this right. The military piece is only one part of the picture–but for many conservatives, like John McCain, it is the only piece that matters. That is a disastrously myopic way to look at an exceedingly complicated problem. Any attempts by the military, or their allies, to pressure a troop increase now are premature and misguided.