WASHINGTON - United States President Barack Obama presented a case on Tuesday
for sending 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan that included both soaring
rhetoric and a new emphasis on its necessity for US national security.
Obama said the escalation was for a "vital national interest" and invoked the
threat of attacks from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, asserting that
such attacks "are now being planned as I speak".
Despite Obama's embrace of these new national security arguments, however, he
has rejected within the past few weeks
the critical link in the national security argument for deploying tens of
thousands of additional troops - the allegedly indissoluble link between the
Taliban insurgency and al-Qaeda.
Proponents of escalation have insisted that the Taliban would inevitably
provide new sanctuaries for al-Qaeda terrorists inside Afghanistan unless the
US counter-insurgency mission was successful.
But during September and October, Obama sought to fend off escalation in
Afghanistan in part by suggesting through other White House officials that the
interests of the Taliban were no longer coincident with those of al-Qaeda.
In fact, intense political maneuvering between Obama and the top US commander
in Afghanistan, General Stanley A McChrystal, over the latter's troop increase
request revolved primarily around the issue of whether the defeat of the
Taliban was necessary to Washington’s al-Qaeda strategy.
The first round of the effort was triggered by the leak of McChrystal's
"initial assessment", with its warning of "mission failure" if his troop
deployment request was rejected. The White House fought back with anonymous
comments quoted in the Washington Post September 21 that the military was
trying to push Obama into a corner on the troop deployment issue.
One of the anonymous senior officials criticized a statement by Admiral Mike
Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the war in Afghanistan would
"probably need more forces".
To avoid being outmaneuvered by the military, Obama suggested in a press
conference that the legitimacy of the Afghan government might now be so damaged
by the blatantly fraudulent August 20 election as to put into question a
counter-insurgency strategy such as the one advanced in McChrystal's
Obama also raised a red flag about the conventional argument from national
security, saying he wasn't going to "think that by sending more troops, we're
automatically going to make Americans safe".
Within a week, his national security adviser, General James Jones, began to
raise that issue explicitly.
In an interview with Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, Jones suggested the
question of why al-Qaeda would want to move out of its present sanctuary in
Pakistan to the uncertainties of Afghanistan would be one that the White House
would be raising in response to McChrystal's troop request.
McChrystal's rejoinder came in a speech at the International Institute for
Strategic Studies in London on October 1, in which he went further than any
previous official rationale for the war. "[W]hen the Taliban has success," said
McChrystal, "that provides sanctuary from which al-Qaeda can operate
He was apparently arguing the Taliban wouldn't even have to seize power
nationally to provide a sanctuary for al-Qaeda.
Only three days later, however, the New York Times reported that "senior
administration officials" were saying privately that Obama's national security
team was now "arguing that the Taliban in Afghanistan do not pose a direct
threat to the United States".
That "shift in thinking", as the Times reported, was an obvious indication that
the White House was preparing to pursue a strategy that would not require the
additional troops McChrystal was requesting because the Taliban need not be
One of the senior officials interviewed by the Times said the administration
was now defining the Taliban as a group that "does not express ambitions of
attacking the United States". The Taliban were aligned with al-Qaeda "mainly on
the tactical front", said the official.
A second theme introduced by the official was that the Taliban could not be
eliminated because it was too deeply entrenched in the country - quite a
different goal from that of the counter-insurgency war proposed by McChrystal.
That was an expression of resistance to what was soon reported to be a
McChrystal request for a "low risk" option of 80,000 troops, combined with a
suggestion that 20,000 troops would be the "high risk" option.
But Defense Secretary Robert Gates was determined to turn the White House
around on the issue of McChrystal's request. He was well aware of Obama's
political sensitivity about not being seen as on the wrong side of his national
security team, and he effectively used that to force the issue.
Gates worked with McChrystal, Mullen and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on
a plan that would be presented to the White House as their consensus position
on the Afghanistan strategy.
The plan, as the New York Times reported on October 27, was presented by an
administration official as a compromise between the plan put forth by Vice
President Joseph Biden for concentrating essentially on al-Qaeda and
McChrystal's counter-insurgency plan. It would be ostensibly aimed at
protecting about 10 population centers, leaving the rest of the country to be
handled by special operations forces with the assistance of drones and air
But the catch was that McChrystal was demanding an expansive definition of
"population centers", which would include most of the Taliban heartland of the
McChrystal was still going to get his counter-insurgency war under the Gates
Notably absent from the Times report was any suggestion that Obama had given
even tentative approval to the proposal. Only Obama's advisers were said to be
"coalescing around" it. But "administration officials" confidently asserted
that the only issue remaining was how many more troops would be required to
"guard the vital parts of the country".
That confidence was evidently based on the fact that Obama's national security
team had already agreed on the options that would be presented to the president
for decision. Two weeks after that report, Obama's press secretary, Robert
Gibbs, said the president would consider four different options at a meeting
with his national security team November 11.
The four options, as the Times reported the day of the meeting, ranged from a
low-end option of 20,000 to roughly 40,000 troops. And Gates, Mullen and
Clinton had "coalesced around" the middle option of about 30,000 troops.
Gates and his allies had thus defined the options and stacked the deck in favor
of the one they were going to support. And the fact that Obama's national
security was lined up in support of that option was already on the public
record. It was a textbook demonstration of how the national security apparatus
ensures that its policy preference on issues of military force prevail in the
Although Obama bowed to pressure from his major national security advisers to
agree to the 30,000 troops, his conviction that the Taliban is not necessarily
a mortal enemy of the United States could influence future White House policy
decisions on Afghanistan.
Obama's speech even included the suggestion that the defeat of the Taliban was
not necessary to US security. That point could be used by Obama to justify
future military or diplomatic moves to extract the United States from the
quagmire he appeared to fear only a few weeks ago.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.