Shadow Government

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The military did not thwart Obama, the Taliban did

This is the third in a series of posts responding to Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars and to the administration’s Afghanistan policy. A major theme of the book is the civilian-military divide over Afghanistan policy. The administration felt that the military was too forthright in advocating for the deployment of 40,000 more troops for a full ...

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

This is the third in a series of posts responding to Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars and to the administration's Afghanistan policy. A major theme of the book is the civilian-military divide over Afghanistan policy. The administration felt that the military was too forthright in advocating for the deployment of 40,000 more troops for a full counterinsurgency campaign. The president and his advisors felt the Pentagon had settled on one course of action and was refusing to provide him with a full range of options.

First, that doesn't seem to be an accurate reflection of events. The military did in fact provide the administration with several options, according to Woodward: the 40,000 option; an 85,000 fully-resourced counterinsurgency campaign; and, after the administration's pushback, the deployment of 20,000 troops for a scaled-down mission. The president, and apparently everyone else, simply disregarded the 85,000 option as "unrealistic." But it was an actual option that the military presented and was only perceived as unrealistic because the administration simply wouldn't consider it (even though no one seemed to dispute that the 85,000 would have the best chance of defeating the Taliban).

Second, and more importantly, it seems the administration was trying to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to the military. The president asked the military for its options but then disliked what it recommended. The president reportedly wanted "choices that would limit U.S. involvement and provide a way out," according to Woodward, while still protecting U.S. security interests in the region. The military responded (rightly, in my view) that the goals of limiting U.S. involvement, on the one hand, and protecting U.S. interests, on the other, were at odds with each other. The president's frustration is understandable, but it is not the military's fault. He can't ask the military for its best advice, and then ask it to give different advice when he doesn't like what they give him. That comes close to politicizing the military. The military brass was right to try to find creative solutions to meet the president's goals while not compromising their professional judgment.

This is the third in a series of posts responding to Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars and to the administration’s Afghanistan policy. A major theme of the book is the civilian-military divide over Afghanistan policy. The administration felt that the military was too forthright in advocating for the deployment of 40,000 more troops for a full counterinsurgency campaign. The president and his advisors felt the Pentagon had settled on one course of action and was refusing to provide him with a full range of options.

First, that doesn’t seem to be an accurate reflection of events. The military did in fact provide the administration with several options, according to Woodward: the 40,000 option; an 85,000 fully-resourced counterinsurgency campaign; and, after the administration’s pushback, the deployment of 20,000 troops for a scaled-down mission. The president, and apparently everyone else, simply disregarded the 85,000 option as "unrealistic." But it was an actual option that the military presented and was only perceived as unrealistic because the administration simply wouldn’t consider it (even though no one seemed to dispute that the 85,000 would have the best chance of defeating the Taliban).

Second, and more importantly, it seems the administration was trying to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to the military. The president asked the military for its options but then disliked what it recommended. The president reportedly wanted "choices that would limit U.S. involvement and provide a way out," according to Woodward, while still protecting U.S. security interests in the region. The military responded (rightly, in my view) that the goals of limiting U.S. involvement, on the one hand, and protecting U.S. interests, on the other, were at odds with each other. The president’s frustration is understandable, but it is not the military’s fault. He can’t ask the military for its best advice, and then ask it to give different advice when he doesn’t like what they give him. That comes close to politicizing the military. The military brass was right to try to find creative solutions to meet the president’s goals while not compromising their professional judgment.

I suspect this is what Col. John Tien, the senior director for Afghanistan and Pakistan (with whom I worked for almost two years), meant when he reportedly told the president, "I don’t see how you can defy your military chain here… because if you tell McChrystal ‘I got your assessment, got your resource constructs, but I’ve chosen to do something else,’ you’re going to probably have to replace him." He was saying, as tactfully as a colonel can say to the commander-in-chief, that the president has the authority to disregard the military’s advice, but if he simply wants to hear different advice, he needs different people.

The military may have overstepped its bounds at times (like McChrystal’s speech in London while the strategy review was ongoing). But by pushing back so hard on the military’s professional advice, the president may have short-changed and distorted the discussion. He communicated that his priority was not maximizing the chances of victory, but getting out of Afghanistan quickly. He communicated that he did not want the best professional advice: He wanted the best option within extremely restrictive and artificial conditions on time and resources. When the commander-in-chief communicates that, mental light bulbs start to go out all over the bureaucracy and the military. The prevailing thought is "If the president is not vested in this mission, why should we be?" The president will only get the best advice if he is willing to listen to it.

What has thwarted the president’s goal is not the military, but the Taliban. Obama wants to get out of Afghanistan relatively quickly but without risking U.S. interests in the region. The Taliban simply won’t let us do that. In war, the enemy gets a vote too.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2 ‏

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