In the Arena

Mission Creep

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There’s a very important piece in the Washington Post today about the military’s passive resistance to President Obama’s Afghanistan war plans. This could be a huge problem going forward. The success of the President’s plan–as a true test of what can be accomplished in Afghanistan–is entirely dependent on two qualities: speed of deployment and focus. The troops need to be in Afghanistan by next summer. The troops have to be focused on the heart of the insurgency, especially the deteriorating situation in Kandahar province; the training of Afghan forces has to focus on quality not numbers. Already the military is beginning to slow-walk the deployment schedule: Obama wanted all the troops in by August, now the last units aren’t scheduled to arrive until November. And, according to this piece, the military has stubbornly–foolishly–insisted on the unachievable goal of a 400,000 man Afghan security force (half that many would be a significant achievement).

The next Afghan policy review is scheduled for one year from now. If the troops don’t arrive in time, if the mission isn’t focused on things that absolutely have to be done–like regaining control of Kandahar city–the military will be able to argue for more troops and more time. That would be a policy, and political, disaster for the President.

I suspect this is a moment for Bob Gates: he needs to gather his generals and read them the riot act. The deployment schedule needs to be sped up, the mission has to be focused now. The military made a significant mistake in 2009, deploying troops to Helmand province rather than trying to secure the heart of the insurgency in Kandahar. That sort of shoddy strategizing can’t happen again in 2010. The details are too complicated for the President to follow on a daily basis; he’s got more than enough other problems to deal with. He needs significant help from his National Security Adviser and Defense Secretary. If they can’t keep the military on plan, he’s going to need to find advisers who can.