Marc Lynch

The odd optics of the ‘strategic review’

 The story of the day seems to be the massive leak of Gen. McChrystal’s "strategic review" of Afghanistan policy, which to the shock of exactly nobody declares the situation dire and calls for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy.  The leaked document contained little that we didn’t already know from copious earlier leaks, op-eds, ...

 The story of the day seems to be the massive leak of Gen. McChrystal's "strategic review" of Afghanistan policy, which to the shock of exactly nobody declares the situation dire and calls for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy.  The leaked document contained little that we didn't already know from copious earlier leaks, op-eds, and background briefings -- but it certainly seems to have been leaked for a reason.  

 I must confess to finding the entire exercise baffling. The "strategic review" brought together a dozen smart (mostly) think-tankers with little expertise in Afghanistan but a general track record of supporting calls for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy.  They set up shop in Afghanistan for a month working in close coordination with Gen. McChrystal, and emerged with a well-written, closely argued warning that the situation is dire and a call for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy. Shocking. Were it not for the optics of a leaked "strategic review" amidst an intensifying public debate, I doubt this would dominate the front pages. 

 What are we to make of this document? Suppose that this had instead been called a "think tank report of reports," or a "collective think tank report" or something like that.  Its participants were mostly smart, honest, experienced security analysts (including several much-respected friends including Exum and Biddle) who clearly worked hard, surely have something to contribute despite the absence of Afghan or South Asian expertise, and whose final project would have been an important contribution under any name. In Iraq, the military regularly invited selected think-tankers to come to Baghdad for high-level briefings and carefully guided tours, which then led to op-eds and reports which either reflected or drove policy changes (as you like).  This one sounds a lot like one of those on steroids.  A great "red team" exercise, a good exercise in building elite foreign policy community support -- but a decisive "strategic review" under the name of the commanding General?

 The story of the day seems to be the massive leak of Gen. McChrystal’s "strategic review" of Afghanistan policy, which to the shock of exactly nobody declares the situation dire and calls for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy.  The leaked document contained little that we didn’t already know from copious earlier leaks, op-eds, and background briefings — but it certainly seems to have been leaked for a reason.  

 I must confess to finding the entire exercise baffling. The "strategic review" brought together a dozen smart (mostly) think-tankers with little expertise in Afghanistan but a general track record of supporting calls for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy.  They set up shop in Afghanistan for a month working in close coordination with Gen. McChrystal, and emerged with a well-written, closely argued warning that the situation is dire and a call for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy. Shocking. Were it not for the optics of a leaked "strategic review" amidst an intensifying public debate, I doubt this would dominate the front pages. 

 What are we to make of this document? Suppose that this had instead been called a "think tank report of reports," or a "collective think tank report" or something like that.  Its participants were mostly smart, honest, experienced security analysts (including several much-respected friends including Exum and Biddle) who clearly worked hard, surely have something to contribute despite the absence of Afghan or South Asian expertise, and whose final project would have been an important contribution under any name. In Iraq, the military regularly invited selected think-tankers to come to Baghdad for high-level briefings and carefully guided tours, which then led to op-eds and reports which either reflected or drove policy changes (as you like).  This one sounds a lot like one of those on steroids.  A great "red team" exercise, a good exercise in building elite foreign policy community support — but a decisive "strategic review" under the name of the commanding General?

 I found Pres. Obama’s comments over the weekend, and the Post’s reporting of the internal administration arguments, somewhat reassuring. Obama is clearly listening to all sides of the argument, and is thinking about the strategic big picture as well as the tactical questions about operations and troop levels inside of Afghanistan.  Obama says that he’s "not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or… sending a message that America is here for for the duration" — an important slap back against the persistent emphasis on credibility, demonstrating commitment, and the other Green Lantern stuff which often permeates the debate.  He knows (as does Gen. McChrystal) that more troops alone are not going to solve anything, but does not yet seem satisfied that the massively expanded counter-insurgency strategy is either necessary or possible.   He clearly recognizes the growing concerns about Afghan mission creep and the doubts among even supportive foreign policy analysts.  And he clearly recognizes that the Afghan electoral fiasco represents a major challenge to the proposed strategy of building a legitimate Afghan state — especially in the 12 month time-frame which Gen. McChrystal proposes as decisive.

 It would be a shame if this turns into an "Obama vs the Generals" narrative, as some clearly hope. While we’re all on edge over this important policy decision, it seems to me that Obama’s doing what he’s supposed to do: asking the big questions about strategy and the wider set of American interests and resource commitments, while taking into account the predictable requests for more resources from the field commander. And McChrystal is doing what he’s supposed to do:  carefully assess the assignment he’s been given and ask for the resources he thinks he needs to do the job.  And, for that matter, Ambassador Holbrooke and his team are doing what they are supposed to do. 

 These are tough decisions, with no really good answers.  While I am very skeptical about both the prospects for success and about the claimed costs of failure, I certainly don’t feel confident that I know the right policy — hence the importance of the public debate which has emerged these last couple of months.   These kinds of artificial political narratives and selective leaks will only make it less likely that the right choices get made. 

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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