President Barack Obama's national address last Tuesday not only detailed the
United States' strategy on Afghanistan, it laid bare his new administration's
strengths and weaknesses - and confirmed the growing suspicion that, eight
years after September 11, 2001, meeting America's global challenges with a
military response remains the default position of the Washington policymaking
"Don't underestimate the impact that eight years of the [George W] Bush
administration has had in Washington," a senior State Department official
explained this last summer. "The Bush people set out the language of the war on
terrorism, invented the vocabulary, defined the terms. People talk about the
of 'doing' diplomacy, but no one really knows what that means or how tough it
can really be."
At least initially, this assessment seemed contradicted by the administration's
flurry of diplomatic activity. Its first months were taken up by Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton's globetrotting, special envoy George Mitchell's
high-profile Jerusalem meetings, AfPak specialist Richard Holbrooke's repeated
initiatives with Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari - and Obama's decision
to engage Iran in direct talks about its nuclear program.
Suddenly, surprisingly, the military seemed relegated to playing a minor role
in Washington: Bush's hero David Petraeus, the US commander for the greater
Middle East, was no longer in the headlines, the war in Iraq seemed well in
hand and Defense Secretary Robert Gates was nowhere to be seen.
All of this changed in May, when a series of well-timed Taliban offensives led
to a spike in US casualties and Gates decided to replace the US Afghan
commander, David McKiernan, with Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal. The
change did not come as a surprise to Pentagon officers, who had watched
Petraeus and McKiernan struggle through a difficult relationship: "The two
couldn't be in the same room together," a McKiernan aide says. "We knew there'd
be a fist fight if we left them alone." The disagreement was personal:
McKiernan resented answering to an officer whom he had once commanded and
viewed as politically ambitious.
But the relationship was also scarred by a subtle disagreement over how to meet
the Taliban challenge. Both McKiernan and Petraeus agreed that the Taliban
posed a security challenge to the Afghan government, but McKiernan focused
first on development - on building what he called "human capital". Petraeus
disagreed: you can't build "human capital" without security, he argued, and the
security situation in the country was deteriorating. Then too, Petraeus
thought, what was needed in Afghanistan was an officer who could respond
creatively to what Petraeus believed was turning into an asymmetric fight - and
McKiernan was an officer with a deep background in running conventional wars.
McChrystal, a former Green Beret and a celebrated special operations commander,
was the answer. Petraeus recommended a change to Gates, and Gates agreed.
Within days of his May 11 appointment, McChrystal showed up in the Afghan
capital, Kabul, with a team of counter-insurgency experts who commandeered
McKiernan's headquarters and fanned out throughout the country.
McChrystal's teams were told to identify the problem and find a solution. "They
absolutely flooded the zone," a US development officer says. "There must have
been hundreds of them. They were in every province, every village, talking to
everyone. There were 10 of them for every one of us." Not surprisingly, within
weeks of their deployment, McChrystal's team leaders had concluded that the US
was facing was an escalating insurgency that could only be checked with an
increase in US troops. In-country State Department officials rolled their eyes:
"What a shock. If you deploy a gang squad, they're going to find a gang," a
senior State Department official says with a tinge of bitterness. "They were
looking for an insurgency and they found one."
"From the minute that McChrystal showed up in Kabul, he drove the debate," a
White House official confirms. "You'll notice - from May on it was no longer a
question of whether we should follow a military strategy or deploy additional
troops. It was always, 'should we do 20,000 or 30,000 or 40,000, or even
80,000'? We weren't searching for the right strategy; we were searching for the
A senior State Department official, watching McChrystal from her State
Department perch in Washington, remembers the frustration among the
department's top policymakers: "We kept saying 'we need to open up to the other
side, like we did in Iraq with the Anbar insurgency,' and the military kept
saying, 'well this isn't Iraq.' And so we'd answer: 'fine, so if Afghanistan
isn't Iraq, then why do you keep talking about a surge?' And we never got an
The State Department's frustration extended into the embassy in Kabul, where
the US ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, was having his own problems with
McChrystal. The appointment of Eikenberry in March of 2009 had been greeted
with skepticism in the State Department because of his background as a West
Pointer, a retired lieutenant general and a US security coordinator in the
country. But if anyone would be sympathetic to McChrystal, it was now thought,
it would be Eikenberry.
But that's not what happened: Eikenberry won friends among professional
diplomats for his easygoing manner and quick understanding of their problems -
and for his open irritation at McChrystal's imperious manner. "McChrystal came
in and he just thought he was some kind of Roman proconsul, a [Douglas]
MacArthur," an Eikenberry colleague notes. "He was going to run the whole
thing. He didn't need to consult with the State Department or civilians, let
alone the ambassador. This was not only the military's show, it was his show."
But McChrystal was not only able to "flood the zone" in Afghanistan, he was
able to do so in Washington. As the director of the Joint Staff, a position he
held just prior to arriving in Kabul, McChrystal established the
Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordinating Cell (PACC), a 70-person military-civilian
operations group housed in the Pentagon's National Command Center, one of the
most secure offices in the world. "This isn't a place you just wander in and
out of," a senior Pentagon official says. The "PACC" bypassed the normal
command structure - and the State Department. It reported to McChrystal, who
rotated its officers in and out of Kabul every three to four months.
The PACC is "a stovepipe operation", this senior Pentagon official notes. "It's
beautiful. It's headed up by McChrystal acolytes, former special operations
officers who view him [McChrystal] as their patron. So they follow his lead.
And there is no requirement for them to share any of the information they get
from Kabul with the State Department or anyone else - let alone with
Eikenberry. This is McChrystal's game. The PACC people in Washington pass
information to McChrystal without going through any channels and they take the
best information from Kabul and they brief [JCS chairman Admiral Mike] Mullen -
and he briefs the president. So during the run-up to the Afghanistan decision,
the military always looked current. They had the best information. Everyone
else looked like a bunch of amateurs. Eikenberry was out of the loop. He had no
chop [influence] on any of it. They just ran circles around him."
The tensions in the Eikenberry-McChrystal relationship came to be defined by
Eikenberry's growing anger that the State Department's views were not getting
an adequate hearing, either in Kabul or in Washington. That is: because the
military was the sole voice in determining what was wrong in Afghanistan, they
would be the sole voice in determining what to do about it. To deal with the
first problem - in Kabul - Eikenberry confronted McChrystal after the general
had had one of his private, face-to-face meetings with Afghan President Hamid
Karzai. "Don't you think I ought to be a part of these meetings?" Eikenberry
asked. McChrystal shrugged him off. "I'll keep you informed," he said.
Eikenberry was enraged: the American in-country effort was supposed to be a
coordinated military-civilian initiative. According to a Pentagon official, the
Eikenberry-McChrystal confrontation, which "first took place in July", was
repeated again and again. "It got worse and worse."
Eikenberry responded to the second problem - in Washington - by belatedly
sending a detailed cable to the president laying out his disagreement with
McChrystal's plan. The cable, which arrived in early November, urged the
president to adopt "a low-end option" of deploying no more than 15,000 US
troops as trainers to the Afghan National Army.
Eikenberry made it clear: America's problems in Afghanistan weren't going to be
solve by killing people, but by helping the Afghans build credible governing
institutions. The cable made its way through the upper reaches of the
Washington policymaking establishment - the deputies committee, the principles
committee and the National Security Council (NSC) - until it reached the
president's desk. It was reviewed at the White House on Wednesday, November 9
(with Eikenberry present) as one of four options available to the president.
McChrystal was enraged. In mid-August, he and his team had spent weeks with
Petraeus and Petraeus' staff in the region preparing to make their case to the
president - including six days of intensive meetings in Qatar - for an
immediate deployment of 40,000 US troops to Afghanistan to "gain the initiative
and reverse insurgent momentum".
The McChrystal recommendation, contained in a 66-page memorandum, became the
focus of a series of intensive White House meetings chaired by the NSC
director, James Jones, throughout September. The meetings were detailed and
exhaustive, what one Central Command (CENTCOM) officer described as "some of
the most physically draining sessions I have ever participated in". Now,
suddenly, Eikenberry was weighing in. McChrystal felt undercut. "Where had this
guy been?" one CENTCOM officer asked. "It was pretty damned late in the day to
be giving an opinion. And that's all it was."
American diplomats don't disagree, but defend Eikenberry by pointing out that
McChrystal's decision to "flood the zone" was designed to take the impetus for
handling the war in Afghanistan out of the hands of the State Department as
much as it was out of the hands of the Taliban. Other voices and other views,
they believed, had been cut out of the loop - and they had decided to strike
"You can only be treated like a bunch of idiots for so long before you get fed
up," one State Department employee says. "It was PowerPoint after PowerPoint,
all filled with this lingo and it all sounded pretty scientific. But it all
amounted to the same thing - who do we kill. Well, it won't work."
State Department officials theorize that Eikenberry might not have weighed in
at all had it not been for an inadvertent McChrystal misstep. It was no secret
in Washington that Vice President Joe Biden was one of the few officials who
questioned McChrystal's call for more troops, but when McChrystal was asked
about it he fell on his face.
During a speech in London on October 1, McChrystal described Biden's skepticism
as "short-sighted" - an embarrassing and bald abrogation of Gates' oft-stated
rule that military officers should keep their mouths shut when it comes to
disagreeing with elected civilian officials. The result did not change the
military equation, but it had a huge psychological impact: "Stan really doesn't
quite get Washington," a colleague says, "and he was a little bit embarrassed.
He took a huge gulp. Before London he was on transmit, after that he wasn't."
Coming nearly on the heels of McChrystal's misstep, the Eikenberry "low-end"
option made a huge difference, coalescing opposition to McChrystal's call for a
high-end flood of more troops and a full-blown counter-insurgency campaign.
"McChrystal's gaffe gave Eikenberry his opening and he took it," a well-placed
senate staffer says.
Eikenberry's cable exploded like a bomb inside Obama's NSC and reinforced
Biden's skepticism over McChrystal's plan and strengthened the voices that
believed McChrystal's plan should be ratcheted back and that the US should be
provided with an "off ramp" - a way out of the country if the plan didn't work.
Eikenberry's meeting with Obama and the NSC team also cast broad doubt on
whether what the US faced in Afghanistan was a full-blown insurgency: doubts
that persist despite Obama's acceptance of an increase of 30,000 US troops. The
voices of doubt have impressive credentials.
James Clad, a former Pentagon deputy assistant secretary of defense for South
Asia, is one of the prominent doubters. "It's not clear to me that what we're
facing in Afghanistan is a counter-insurgency," he says. "In fact, I'm quite
sure it's not. It's more likely that it's a Pashtun civil war. Which means
we're applying the wrong fix to the wrong kind of problem."
Clad finds himself agreeing with Graham Fuller, a former Central Intelligence
Agency station chief in Kabul, who last week wrote that "the 'objective'
situation in Afghanistan remains a mess. We are not now winning hearts and
minds in Afghanistan; indeed, we never can, and certainly not at gunpoint".
Fuller continued by saying that "most Pashtuns will never accept a US plan for
Afghanistan's future, [while] the non-Pashtuns - Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, etc -
naturally welcome any outside support in what is a virtual civil war".
Clad sees the president's announcement as an unworkable compromise between
contending Washington factions, each of which has a strongly militarized face.
"More troops also mean more targets for a terrain-savvy enemy," he says, "and
whatever the impending uptick in violence against the Taliban achieves," he
says, "we will need to anchor the result in a regional settlement - one that
draws Iran, China, Russia and India into a common purpose: to stop primitive
Islamist zealots seizing Kabul once again, which is the Pakistani security
establishment's preferred 'default' position. By militarizing the response to
9/11," Clad continues, "we took the view that America 'owns' Afghanistan in
perpetuity, a foolish unilateral approach that the president's policy seems to
Andrew Bacevich, the dean of America's military thinkers, is even more
outspoken. Writing in the Los Angeles Times in the immediate aftermath of the
Obama decision, Bacevich likened Obama's decision to Bush's anti-terrorism
crusade - a damning comparison.
Like Eikenberry - and Clad and Fuller, Bacevich questions whether launching a
counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan is wise: "The 'surge' engineered by
Army General David H Petraeus in Iraq enables proponents of that war to change
the subject and to argue that the counter-insurgency techniques employed in
Iraq can produce similar results in Afghanistan," Bacevich writes,
"disregarding the fact that the two places bear about as much resemblance to
one another as North Dakota does to Southern California."
He concludes: "Under the guise of cleaning up Bush's mess, Obama has chosen to
continue Bush's policies. No doubt pulling the plug on an ill-advised
enterprise involves risk and uncertainty. It also entails acknowledging
mistakes. It requires courage. Yet without these things, talk of change will
remain so much hot air."
Opponents of Obama's Afghanistan strategy argue that eight years after 9/11,
America's response to terrorism (or "extremist violence" - to use the current
president's stumbling catch phrase) remains chillingly unsophisticated: kill
the enemy. While McChrystal's counter-insurgency plan was largely defanged, it
was eventually endorsed by a president whose civilian team is short on military
experience (neither Obama nor his secretary of state has ever served in
uniform) and whose closest advisors - excepting Biden - were slow to question
military assumptions. "We were really behind the curve," a senior State
Department diplomat admits.
Critics of Obama might conclude from his recent West Point speech that the
military is in charge of the American government - but don't tell the Pentagon.
The military got what it wanted, but it emerged from the three-month
Afghanistan review process with a keen sense of its limits and a strong feeling
that while it might have succeeded in flooding the zone this time, it won't