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Shadow Government

So far so good for civil-military relations under Obama

By Kori Schake Debate is heating up over strategy and requirements for the war in Afghanistan. General McChrystal has completed his assessment of what would be needed to prosecute the war successfully. It reportedly advocates a shift in thinking about the problem from destroying Al Qaeda to protecting the Afghan people, and conveys that along ...

By Kori Schake

Debate is heating up over strategy and requirements for the war in Afghanistan. General McChrystal has completed his assessment of what would be needed to prosecute the war successfully. It reportedly advocates a shift in thinking about the problem from destroying Al Qaeda to protecting the Afghan people, and conveys that along with the conclusion that the people who decide whether we win or lose in Afghanistan are the Afghans.

Purportedly at Secretary Gates’s request, McChrystal’s assessment does not include a recommended troop increase. The Secretary evidently encouraged the General to hold off on the number and let the strategic approach be reviewed first. McChrystal’s report supposedly contains three options of force increase: a 10,000 troop, high risk approach; a 25,000 medium risk option; and a risk-minimizing option of 45,000 additional troops.

Senator Feingold has argued in the Wall Street Journal that our mission in Afghanistan is undermining American national security. That’s a serious charge, and he makes a defensible case for redirecting toward a level of engagement more proportionate to the terrorist threat, with a "focused military mission," increased pressure on the Karzai government to govern well, and a flexible timeline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan. In short, Feingold argues for doing in Afghanistan what the Obama administration has done in Iraq.

Crucial to Feingold’s argument is that the Afghan people resent our military involvement. Both McChrystal, and now Gates, are persuaded that is not true. They argue that how we operate in Afghanistan will determine Afghan support to a much greater degree than the size of the force. Gates for the first time yesterday signaled his support for further force increases on that basis, indicating he will not be a political firewall for the White House if McChrystal and Mullen advocate politically uncomfortable increases.

Afghanistan was always going to be a central national security issue, because President Obama had campaigned and carried over into governance his argument that it was the "right" war and negligently under-resourced during the Bush administration. Even with domestic anti-war sentiment on the rise and a potential rebellion by Congressional Democrats against funding the Afghan mission, Obama is seemingly trapped into supporting the military commander’s troop requests. Hard to imagine the Houdini contortion that lets him sustain his claim that his predecessor neglected the most important war and then refuse troops to a commander who you put into position and who is supported by a well-respected Defense Secretary.

Yet the President may — and perhaps should — do exactly that, and for reasons that are laudable in our system of civil-military relations. The American way of organizing for warfare has distinct responsibilities for the leading military and civilian participants. To work up the ladder, it’s the military commander’s job to survey the requirements for success and make recommendations. It’s the job of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to evaluate the military judgment of that strategy and resourcing, advising the Secretary and the President on its soundness and other possible courses of military action. It’s the Secretary of Defense’s job to figure out how to provide those resources from a limited pool of people and equipment, to identify and manage the risk it creates for other operations and objectives (e.g., Iraq, managing China’s rise, deterring North Korea, etc). It is the Commander in Chief’s job to establish the war’s objectives and determine whether they merit the resources it would require to be successful. He may determine the objectives are too costly in themselves, or that achieving them would distract too much effort from other national priorities, or that we do not have the necessary partners in the Karzai government to achieve our objectives.

It should go without saying that it is not the National Security Advisor’s job to intimidate military commanders into dialing down their requests to politically comfortable levels, although that is what Jim Jones is reported to have done when visiting Afghanistan during the McChrystal review. Such politicization of military advice ought to be especially noxious to someone who’d been both the Commandant of the Marine Corps and a Combatant Commander. When the Bob Woodward article recounting Jones’ attempted manipulation as published, Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen commendably defended McChrystal’s independence. It is also curious that the one person invisible in this debate, as in the debate about relieving General McKiernan, is the CENTCOM commander, General Petraeus.

But beneficially and importantly for our country, policy debates over the war in Afghanistan indicate that the system of civil-military relations is clearly working as designed. We owe much to Gates, Mullen, and McChrystal for shielding the process from politicization and providing military advice the President needs to make decisions only he can make.

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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