Shadow Government

The scariest thing I’ve read on Afghanistan

By Peter Feaver What is the scariest thing I have read recently on Afghanistan? It is not the leaks from General McChrystal’s strategy assessment, though they are certainly sobering enough. McChrystal’s statement that the situation in Afghanistan is "serious" but salvageable should banish irrational exuberance about the war (if any is left after 8 years). ...

By Peter Feaver

What is the scariest thing I have read recently on Afghanistan?

It is not the leaks from General McChrystal’s strategy assessment, though they are certainly sobering enough. McChrystal’s statement that the situation in Afghanistan is "serious" but salvageable should banish irrational exuberance about the war (if any is left after 8 years). But by itself, it does not indicate a worse-than-we-realize situation. On the contrary, the attentive public and the expert community has consumed a steady diet of bleak reports from the field and so I, at least, do not have to revise downward my evaluation of the battlefield prospects for McChrystal’s efforts in Afghanistan.

Nor is it the steady drumbeat of complaint of electoral fraud in the recent election. It is depressing to realize that this last vote was probably the least "free and fair" of any of the several elections or referenda in the combined theaters of Afghanistan and Iraq, but the purity of the election is not the most urgent concern in Afghanistan. A better election would have been nice, but would not have substantially altered the near-to-mid-term prognosis there.

Nor even is it George Will’s remarkable column calling for the United States to retreat from Afghanistan. It reads like a 3-M column: part come-home-America George McGovern, part loopy Michael Moore, and part Jack Murtha. Perhaps it is the Murtha correspondence that I find most telling, for what distinguished Murtha was the absence of any serious plan for meeting U.S. national security objectives once the troops were pulled out. George Will, at least thus far, doesn’t offer one either. Will’s column is a depressing read, but it is not scary.

No, the scariest thing I read was in a McClatchy report on Pentagon concerns about President Obama. The key segment is here:

WASHINGTON – The prospect that U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal may ask for as many as 45,000 additional American troops in Afghanistan is fueling growing tension within President Barack Obama’s administration over the U.S. commitment to the war there.

On Monday, McChrystal sent his assessment of the situation in Afghanistan to the Pentagon, the U.S. Central Command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and NATO. Although the assessment didn’t include any request for more troops, senior military officials said they expect McChrystal later in September to seek between 21,000 and 45,000 more troops. There currently are 62,000 American troops in Afghanistan.

However, administration officials said that amid rising violence and casualties, polls that show a majority of Americans now think the war in Afghanistan isn’t worth fighting. With tough battles ahead on health care, the budget and other issues, Vice President Joe Biden and other officials are increasingly anxious about how the American public would respond to sending additional troops.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to the media, said Biden has argued that without sustained support from the American people, the U.S. can’t make the long-term commitment that would be needed to stabilize Afghanistan and dismantle al Qaida. Biden’s office declined to comment.

"I think they (the Obama administration) thought this would be more popular and easier," a senior Pentagon official said. "We are not getting a Bush-like commitment to this war."

This last quote really brought me up short. There are few things more toxic for effective civil-military relations in wartime than the military believing that their political commanders are not serious about seeing the conflict through to a successful conclusion. No army can remain more resolved than the Commander-in-Chief is — not for very long, anyway. And once doubts about that resolve seep into the interagency and theater decision-making process, they are very hard to eradicate. Indeed, once entrenched, efforts to rebut them with bold statements of resolve suffer from the "thou doth protest too much" problem and may even reinforce those doubts.

Only one thing could scare me more: If these doubts are based on first-person encounters with President Obama and his top-most national security team. In my experience, even "senior Pentagon officials" can have only vague and dodgy understandings of what the president actually believes. During the Bush years, I sometimes encountered people matching that anonymous source’s description who based their assessments primarily on what they had read in the newspapers, not on any real knowledge of White House discussions. For the time being, then, I am hoping this story is based on a misapprehension of President Obama’s resolve. But I will be watching closely to see if it is based in fact. If so, the Afghanistan mission is in real trouble.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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