In the Arena

Afghan Numbers Game

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…is just that, a game. There have been media reports from McClatchy and CBS News citing specific troop increase numbers to come in Afghanistan. These are wrong. There is a more guarded report in the New York Times today, that Clinton, Gates and Admiral Mullen favor 30,000+–which is true, although Mullen is known to favor the full 40,000 that General McChrystal has requested. (The most passionate advocate of McChrystal’s plan during national security council meetings is David Petraeus, I’m told.)

But there is more to the story…and the most important part in these stories is what’s missing: no one–not even his closest advisers–knows what Obama wants to do, in terms of long-term strategy. The President doesn’t have a number yet, and the number is secondary to the specific mission that the President decides to pursue going forward. ┬áThere is a fair amount of frustration among White House aides about the steady stream of leaks–wishful thinking leaks–from the Pentagon that imply otherwise. Part of the problem is that the military planners think in long-term increments, 5-10 years, while the President seems to be where Secretary of Defense Gates was last spring: what can we learn in the next year about the viability of this effort?

When the military, for example, thinks about sending more troops to Kandahar, it thinks about months of planning, new fortifications and so forth–instead of a quick, transitional insertion. There is a huge airbase just outside of Kandahar city that could house substantial numbers of U.S. troops on a temporary basis, in tents if necessary, while joint security stations and the other accoutrements of counterinsurgency warfare are established in the city itself. This is especially necessary since, I”m told, the situation in Kandahar is declining rapidly. “We’ve lost the surrounding areas,” one counterinsurgency expert recently told me, “and I’m not so sure we’re in control of the city, especially at night.”

It has taken time for the President and the military to get on the same page–and I’m not sure they’re quite there yet. But Obama is raising absolutely crucial questions. He is questioning the military’s first-order assumptions–like its wildly rosy notion that it can train 400,000 Afghan troops and police (the current desertion rate is about 20%, much higher among the troops actually engaged in combat). This is what a President should do–what George Bush should have done–and what Obama needs to continue to do as we move forward.

But the Administration also has been recalcitrant about telling the public what’s happening now. It has allowed the impression to grow that the government is paralyzed, that everything is on hold–but that’s not quite true. The strategy review is about events that will begin to happen next year. Right now, troops are still arriving in country–and others are redeploying now that their election-watch mission is completed. Troops are also being moved from remote areas to more populated zones where counterinsurgency makes a difference. The Administration’s silence on this, the fact that it has left the field to military leakers, Afghan skeptics on the left and knee-jerk hawks on the right, has been a self-inflicted stupidity.

I”ll have more to say about the relationship between the President and the military, and the Afghanistan decision, in my print column tomorrow.