Top Pentagon official: McChrystal’s report is just “one input”

Top Pentagon official: McChrystal’s report is just “one input”

A senior Pentagon official said today that the leaked assessment of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which says that “mission failure” is a serious risk unless more U.S. troops are sent to Afghanistan, is just “one input” into the administration’s thinking, as another senior administration source directly blamed McChrystal’s shop for the surprising leak and suggested that the general, who was installed by President Obama’s team in June, is out ahead of the White House over the resourcing of the Afghan war.

Michèle Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy, who has a high-level role in crafting the administration’s new approach to the war, spoke with FP about McChrystal’s document, how it fits into the larger Afghan policy review within the Obama administration, and the way forward for the international effort in Afghanistan in an exclusive interview with The Cable.

Flournoy, seeking to put the general’s assessment in context, said that McChrystal’s call for more troops would be only one of several factors that President Obama would consider when he makes his final decision.

“The McChrystal assessment is one input, one very important input, into a larger conversation that the president is having on where we go on Afghanistan,” said Flournoy, who called it “a starting point” for the discussion.

Assessments from combatant commanders, the joint staff, and comments from Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates have now all been forwarded to Obama for his perusal, Flournoy said, adding that there is now an interagency discussion going on involving the president and his principals.

Some assessments are being revised in the wake of Afghan election, which is still in turmoil after reports of widespread fraud and vote rigging, Flournoy said.

“You have an uncertain outcome; you have some new challenges that have come out of how that process has gone. And so there will be other political assessments, other assessments, coming into that discussion from places outside the Pentagon,” said Flournoy.

Obama’s initial addition of 21,000 new troops to Afghanistan were sent to provide security for the elections, to prepare for the summer fighting season, and “as a down payment” on the new strategy announced in March, said Flournoy. Further reviews after the March announcement were always planned and that’s what going on now, she added.

The president is setting aside large blocks of time for meetings on Afghanistan policy “over the coming weeks,” said Flournoy, indicating that policy watchers shouldn’t expect a decision any time soon.

“We want to make sure that the decision is strategy driven, that the president has the space to take all the inputs to make the best possible choice.”

That long period of contemplation is exactly what’s got lawmakers and members of the military in Afghanistan uneasy, especially after Obama said Sunday he was skeptical of putting more American men and women in harm’s way.

One Pentagon source said that the leak of the assessment probably came from McChrystal’s staff and represented an increased effort by counterinsurgency-focused officers in theater to pressure the administration to raise troop levels, in light of what they see as Obama’s wobbling on the issue.

At the top levels of the administration, there’s a feeling that McChrystal’s assessment is getting too much play in the process and in the media. The White House wanted to come to a decision on its own terms, but now all attention is centered on McChrystal.

The White House fears a repeat of the 2007 Iraq debate, when then Iraq commander General David Petraeus came to Washington “like he was bringing tablets down from the mountain,” and then Congress enshrined his views, which became policy over the objections of some of the higher up military leadership.

“If they had to do it all over again, they would probably seek McChrystal’s views in a less formal way,” the source said.

Meanwhile, Flournoy said there are some things that could be done now, even before the final decision on a strategy is made.

“Everybody seems to be talking about growing the Afghan Nation Security Forces [ANSF]. So without deciding exactly how fast and how far, there might be some things you want to do to enable that in the fiscal 2010 appropriations bill,” that’s moving through Congress now,  she said.

The Senate Appropriations Committee recently reduced the administration’s request for growing the Afghan forces by $900 million in its version of the bill, saying that the Defense Department simply can’t spend all the money it has requested in the designated time period.

“There are issues of absorption capacity across the board in Afghanistan. … I think some of this we won’t have firm answers to in time to affect the bill, and we’ll have to live with the consequences of that in terms of managing and reprogramming,” said Flournoy, “On ANSF, we want to position ourselves to grow the force faster. I can’t imagine any strategy option in which that’s not going to be a part of it.”

Flournoy also responded to criticism from lawmakers in both parties and both chambers about the metrics the administration shared with them last week, which presumably would be used to measure progress in Afghanistan and which the administration was compelled by law to devise and distribute.

“On the metrics, what we’ve done is laid out a series of areas … that were the major muscle movements of what we need to do in Afghanistan,” she said, “Now underneath those are a number of specific indicators that the intelligence community will be asked to look at in support of coming to overall judgments in these areas.”

The first actual report on the metrics won’t be until the new year, according to Flournoy, at which point the administration will be able to discuss the details with Congress more substantively.

Flournoy said there’s no decision yet on whether the administration will let McChrystal testify directly to lawmakers in open session, as many senior senators are calling for.

File photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images