By Eugene Robinson
How to proceed in Afghanistan will be among the most difficult and fateful decisions that President Barack Obama ever makes. But he’s the one who has to decide, not his generals. The men with the stars on their shoulders—and I say this with enormous respect for their patriotism and service—need to shut up and salute.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is entitled to his opinion about the best way forward. But he has no business conducting a public campaign to build support for his preferred option, which is to send tens of thousands more troops into a country once called the “graveyard of empires.”
McChrystal’s view—that a strategy employing fewer resources, in pursuit of more limited goals, would be “shortsighted”—is something the White House needs to hear. He is, after all, the man Obama put in charge in Afghanistan, and it would be absurd not to take his analysis of the situation into account. But McChrystal is out of line in trying to sell his position publicly, as he did last week in a speech in London.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates was right to lay down the law. Gates said Monday that it is “imperative” that military and civilian leaders “provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately.” I believe that’s Pentagon-speak for: “Put a sock in it, Stan.”
McChrystal’s statements came at a pivotal moment when the White House is engaged in a fundamental review of Afghanistan policy. Some officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, have argued for a minimalist approach in terms of goals and resources. Obama has called Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” but now must face the implications of an open-ended escalation.
McChrystal, in his public advocacy for more troops, seemed to be trying to limit Obama’s options. But what we want to achieve in Afghanistan is a political question, and we don’t pay our generals to do politics. That’s the job of the president and the Congress—and whether our elected leaders decide to pull out tomorrow or stay for 100 years, the generals’ job is to make it happen.
For the record, this would be my position even if McChrystal were arguing for an immediate pullout—or even if George W. Bush, rather than Obama, were the president whose authority was being undermined. In October 2006, when the chief of staff of the British army said publicly that Britain should pull out of Iraq because the presence of foreign troops was fueling the insurgency—a view I wholeheartedly shared—I argued that he ought to be fired. I wrote that I didn’t like “active-duty generals dabbling in politics, even if I agree with them.” If military officers want to devise and implement geopolitical strategy, they should leave their jobs and run for office.
In a confidential report to the president—leaked two weeks ago to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post—McChrystal argued for a counterinsurgency strategy that would basically involve protecting the people of Afghanistan from the Taliban and al-Qaida, and thus winning the population’s hearts and minds. To do this would require lots more than the 62,000 U.S. troops now in the country. So, logically, McChrystal wants more forces—and wants them soon.
But it would be a dereliction of duty for the president not to consider alternatives. It seems to me that there’s a glaring contradiction in McChrystal’s analysis. If history tells us anything about Afghanistan, it’s that the presence of large numbers of foreign troops tends to inflame nationalist resistance. Yet carrying out McChrystal’s plan would require substantially more U.S. troops—reports say that the general wants as many as 40,000, which would make the U.S. “footprint” roughly as large as that of the Soviet military during the failed occupation of the 1980s.
One alternative would be to focus narrowly on eliminating the possibility that al-Qaida could ever again use Afghanistan as a launching pad for attacks on the United States or its allies. But that would mean tolerating and even negotiating with the odious Taliban, which is resurgent. And with nuclear-armed Pakistan to the east of Afghanistan and nuclear wannabe Iran to the west, calibrating the proper U.S. military presence could hardly be a higher-stakes exercise.
Privately, Obama needs to hear McChrystal’s advice. Publicly, he needs to hear one simple phrase from the general: “Yes, Mr. President.”
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group
White House / Pete Souza