Shadow Government

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Gates to the rescue in Afghanistan

When Napoleon marched his army into Berlin in 1806, he took his generals to the tomb of Frederick the Great, saying "hats off, gentlemen; if he were alive we wouldn’t be here." The same could be said of the Obama administration’s policy on Afghanistan: without Defense Sec. Robert Gates, we would not be here. Over ...

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

When Napoleon marched his army into Berlin in 1806, he took his generals to the tomb of Frederick the Great, saying "hats off, gentlemen; if he were alive we wouldn't be here." The same could be said of the Obama administration's policy on Afghanistan: without Defense Sec. Robert Gates, we would not be here.

Over the weekend, the Obama administration concluded its Afghanistan policy review, formally committing to prosecute the war until Afghan security forces are competent to undertake the work done by U.S. and allied forces. Control of operations will gradually transition to Afghan security forces as military commanders determine them capable of managing the fight. The year 2014 is aspired to by the Afghan and force providing governments as the date at which such transition would be complete, although the commander in Afghanistan is hesitant to pledge unequivocally that can be met.

This beneficial outcome is diametrically opposed to the president's intention when a year ago he announced the surge of effort in Afghanistan. Having been cornered by his own rhetoric about the good war in Afghanistan recklessly under-resourced by the previous administration, the president accepted the need to increase forces. But in the very same breath as he gaveth, he tooketh away: "as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home."

When Napoleon marched his army into Berlin in 1806, he took his generals to the tomb of Frederick the Great, saying "hats off, gentlemen; if he were alive we wouldn’t be here." The same could be said of the Obama administration’s policy on Afghanistan: without Defense Sec. Robert Gates, we would not be here.

Over the weekend, the Obama administration concluded its Afghanistan policy review, formally committing to prosecute the war until Afghan security forces are competent to undertake the work done by U.S. and allied forces. Control of operations will gradually transition to Afghan security forces as military commanders determine them capable of managing the fight. The year 2014 is aspired to by the Afghan and force providing governments as the date at which such transition would be complete, although the commander in Afghanistan is hesitant to pledge unequivocally that can be met.

This beneficial outcome is diametrically opposed to the president’s intention when a year ago he announced the surge of effort in Afghanistan. Having been cornered by his own rhetoric about the good war in Afghanistan recklessly under-resourced by the previous administration, the president accepted the need to increase forces. But in the very same breath as he gaveth, he tooketh away: "as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home."

Secretary Gates has a fine Florentine touch for orchestrating outcomes, as is evident by his slight of hand in convincing the public that defense spending is being reduced. But trapping the Obama administration into a sensible alignment of objectives and resources for winning the war in Afghanistan is his coup de grâce. His work repairing the administration’s strategy merits studying.

The first element was preventing the administration from adopting a narrower set of objectives in Afghanistan. Both during the initial administration review announced March 25th and the exhaustively drawn out second review, there was significant support by the political faction of the administration to reduce the standard to something that could be met without distracting from the president’s domestic agenda. Gates made common cause with Secretary Hillary Clinton, and standing together they were too formidable for Vice President Joe Biden and others to assail. In his West Point speech announcing the conclusions of the second review, the president emphasized that "our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future."

Having established the goal, Gates put his men in place. Though General McKiernan had drawn attention to the under-resourcing of effort in Afghanistan, he was judged by both Gates and Admiral Mullen to be insufficiently creative to succeed designing and commanding operations for this complex war. They replaced him with a counterinsurgency expert, General Stanley McChrystal, and put Gates’s military assistant, General Rodriguez, in the mix, as well, to ensure close webbing of the Pentagon and the war effort.

Third, Gates tasked the commander with undertaking an independent assessment of what would be required to achieve the administration’s objectives. The McChrystal review accepted the premise of the White House’s policy and made an intellectually unassailable argument for what would be needed in a concept of operations and resourcing to achieve it, with options directly tied to varying levels of risk. Once the McChrystal standard had been set, it was untouchable by the politicos. There was no way to reject the resources the commander said he needed, given the president’s criticism of the previous administration.

Fourth, Gates prevented the strategy debate becoming a civil-military schism. That the White House felt betrayed by the military asking for the commitment necessary to achieve the president’s objectives is clear from their comments during the review. When McChrystal injudiciously previewed his views, Gates made a fine show of calling for discipline and insisting that views be conveyed through the chain of command. He protected the military from the White House that way. When the report leaked (as was inevitable when people on both sides of the argument believed the administration was about to make a terrible mistake), DOD struck a principled pose about not commenting on internal deliberations, reinforcing the perception of our military as apolitical.

Fifth, in making personnel decisions, he made the administration’s strategic decision on Afghanistan. When General McChrystal immolated, Gates put the smoothest civil-military operator among commanders from Iraq into Afghanistan (General Petraeus) and the finest war-fighting mind of our time (General Mattis) into CENTCOM. They’d written the counterinsurgency manual and were insurmountable defenders of winning the war; once they were in place, the White House essentially ceded its preference for withdrawing in June 2011. Bonus points for capitalizing on a tactical loss (McChrystal) to achieve a strategic victory.

Sixth, Secretary Gates, Secretary Clinton, and our military leadership cajoled NATO into giving the president political cover to extend the deadline. If the U.S. fails in Afghanistan, NATO fails, and Secretary General Rasmussen showed enormous skill in keeping allies committed (even if only in name not in troop levels) until 2014 and announcing that commitment at the recent Lisbon summit. NATO made extension of the timeline easier for the administration to accept, given its hagiography of working through multinational institutions.

Seventh and finally, Gates worked the communications angle brilliantly. A steady drum beat of stories about the importance of giving the surge time to work began almost immediately, then transitioned to seeding public expectations that the review would not advocate reducing forces, but would basically validate our current course. Just before the president was to make a decision on the review, Secretary Gates took a planeload of journalists to Afghanistan to hear for themselves what the people fighting the war believe: it’s a tough fight, will take time, but is winnable and we’re winning. In case anyone failed to draw the right conclusion, he said he was convinced the strategy was working, giving his private counsel to the president in public. Those stories lead-turned the conclusion of the review, making it very hard for the president to walk away from the war.

Hats off, gentlemen. But for Bob Gates, we would not be here.

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

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