National Security Network

President Demonstrates Leadership on Afghanistan

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Report 24 June 2010

Afghanistan Afghanistan Afghanistan Strategy military


Yesterday in the Rose Garden, President Obama displayed the leadership qualities that helped put him in office. By accepting the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal and replacing him with CENTCOM Commander General David Petraeus, the President disposed of an unnecessary, potentially compromising distraction at a time of war. He also reinforced the integrity of our time-honored tradition of  civilian rule over the military. These moves garnered immediate support from across the political spectrum.

Now that the change in command is underway, attention should return to the matter of real importance: the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan.  Once confirmed, General Petraeus will inherit a war which by all accounts is running into real challenges, including rising violence, struggles with governance and legitimacy, and wavering domestic support.  This will continue to take center-stage in the weeks and months to come, requiring a willingness to both question assumptions and make potentially difficult adjustments.  Yet while this recalibration takes place, calls by the partisans who have cynically used the McChrystal affair to urge the President to drop his commitment to a conditions-based timetable for eventual redeployment should be ignored.  Such calls, made by discredited conservatives, will only push the U.S. towards endless war, which will do nothing to advance either Afghans' security or core American interests.

Commander-in-Chief demonstrates strong leadership while defending civilian control over military. "President Obama dismissed Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal on Wednesday after concluding that his military chief in Afghanistan had badly damaged the chain of command and could no longer work effectively with the civilian leadership at a crucial moment in the war," reported the Washington Post. As the President made clear yesterday, the behavior by McChrystal and his aides depicted in a recent Rolling Stone article constituted an unnecessary distraction at a time of war, and seriously jeopardized one of the country's core democratic values: civilian control over the military. In an address delivered in the Rose Garden, he stated "I have a responsibility to the extraordinary men and women who are fighting this war...I've got no greater honor than serving as Commander-in-Chief of our men and women in uniform," adding that he saw it as his duty to ensure that "no diversion" complicated that task.  The President also based his decision on the need to uphold the principle that "democracy depends upon institutions that are stronger than individuals," which includes "strict adherence to the military chain of command, and respect for civilian control over that chain of command."

Obama's show of leadership was met with broad, bi-partisan support:

Senator John Kerry (D-MA): "The commander-in-chief has made it clear no one is bigger than the mission and nothing less than a unified effort in Afghanistan will get the job done...The strategy and the objectives must be the only agenda. That's what really counts. American lives are on the line and America's security interests hang in the balance. We cannot afford another minute of distraction." [Senator John Kerry (D-MA), 6/23/10]

Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT): "The president has taken the crisis in the Rolling Stone article and turned it into a decisive show of presidential leadership." [Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), MSNBC, via the Hill, 6/23/10]

Cesar Conda, former advisor to Vice President Cheney: "The president had no choice but to let Gen. McChrystal go for his insubordinate comments, but he did so with real class by praising McChrystals's service to the country, and making it clear that he did not make the decision out of any sense of ‘personal insult.'" [Cesar Conda, 6/23/10]

Rep. John Boehner (R-OH): "I have great respect for General McChrystal and the job he's done in Afghanistan and elsewhere in service of our country, but I respect the decision of our Commander-in-Chief."  [Rep. John Boehner, (R-OH), via the Hill, 6/23/10]

[Washington Post, 6/24/10. President Obama, 6/23/10]

General Petreaus faces challenges in Afghanistan that are quite difference from those in Iraq.  Thomas Ruttig, head of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, outlines the many challenges in Afghanistan, writing: "Here, on the ground, things are on fire. Violence is even increasing, ‘attributable', as the latest UN report on Afghanistan puts it, ‘to an increase of military operations in the southern region during the first quarter of 2010' but also to the Taliban's counter-surge. A government lacking legitimacy by half-way decent elections, apparently concerned mainly for their families' and friends' business interests and even considering an unprincipled embrace of the insurgent leaders in order to cling to power, is creating fears of an all-Pashtun coalition, deepening the ethnic divide, acutely risking the alienation of half of the population for good while, by the same action, strengthening warlord rule in the North even further."  Similarly Andrew Exum, of the Center for New American Security, explains that the many challenges in Afghanistan make it a much different than Petreaus experience in Iraq:  "David Petraeus is going to find Afghanistan in 2010 a greater challenge than Iraq in 2007 for three reasons... while challenging the organization culture of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps was difficult, challenging the organizational cultures of the 38 nations that contribute to the International Security and Assistance Force (I.S.A.F.) in Afghanistan is orders of magnitude more complicated... [In Iraq with Ryan Crocker] General Petraeus set a new standard for civilian-military cooperation [but in Afghanistan] General Petraeus will partner with the accomplished British diplomat and NATO civilian representative Mark Sedwill but also with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a retired U.S. Army general who has clashed repeatedly with the I.S.A.F. staff over strategy in Afghanistan... Third and finally, in Iraq, General Petraeus was very good but also very lucky. His Baghdad security operations coincided with a Mahdi Army ceasefire, a tribal rebellion in Anbar Province and the effects of a brutal civil war fought out in 2006. In Afghanistan, by contrast, government corruption and Pakistani support for militant groups undermines U.S. and allied efforts."

Gen. Petraeus recognizes that Afghanistan is different from Iraq and that there will be many new challenges to face.  Petraeus has made it clear that every "situation like this is truly and absolutely unique, and has its own context and specifics and its own texture."  He has also stated that "his tactics in Iraq cannot simply be transposed to Afghanistan. Indeed, there are big differences: Iraq is far richer, has a greater density of both American and local forces, its command is more unified, and insurgents enjoy nothing like the cross-border safe havens that the Taliban has in Pakistan's tribal belt."  In addition, Petraeus understands the importance of working with regional partners - including Pakistan, India, and Central Asian states - the need for a more coordinated civil-military approach, and the uphill battle against issues like corruption and governance. [Thomas Ruttig , 6/23/10. Andrew Exum, NY Times, 6/24/10.  Dave Petreaus: Radio Free Europe, 1/9/09.  Daily, NSN, 10/2/08. Council on Foreign Relations, 11/5/03. The Economist, 10/2/08. Daily, NSN, 10/9/08]

Discredited conservatives use McChrystal affair to push for an endless war in Afghanistan.  In a piece entitled "Mr. President, Don't Waste this Crisis," Bill Kristol and Thomas Donnelly attempted to turn McChrystal's gaffe into a referendum on the President's 2011 conditions-based timetable for Afghanistan, a flexible strategy which the military unanimously supports.  Despite this backing, Kristol and Donnelly opportunistically and cynically plowed ahead and used the President's conditions-based timetable to question whether the President really wants to "win the war."  They write: "No one-not his lieutenants, nor his cabinet, nor his generals, nor the American people, nor our allies, nor the Afghans, nor our enemies-can be sure whether the president wants to win the war or just to end the war.  The McChrystal contretemps creates an opportunity to right many of these wrongs; the White House should not waste this crisis. Anything less than a clean sweep will leave the war effort impaired.  The imposition of a troop-withdrawal deadline, in particular, has poisoned our Afghanistan strategy. McChrystal has, understandably, behaved like a man under pressure to produce quick results to get good marks in the administration's December Afghanistan strategy review.  Even the timetable for the review is premature and therefore transparently artificial: the last ‘surge' brigade won't be deployed until November."

The Heritage Foundation similarly pushed for an endless war in Afghanistan.  In its "Statement on the War in Afghanistan," Heritage focused solely on the conditions-based timetable.  "The artificial Afghanistan withdrawal deadline has obviously caused some of our military leaders to question our strategy in Afghanistan.  That deadline, which President Barack Obama announced to the American people, the military, our allies and our enemies on December 1, 2009, has provoked many - including the government in Kabul, the Afghan people, the military in Pakistan, and our enemies the terrorists - to question America's resolve to win the War in Afghanistan...He should start by eliminating the timeline and making it clear that winning the war is his top priority. He can do that by giving our military leaders whatever additional forces or resources they need to get the job done...Now is the time for President Obama to recognize that his artificial timeline has had very real consequences. The president must right the ship, change course on his strategy, and make it clear to friend and foe that he is committed to victory in Afghanistan."  [Bill Kristol and Thomas Donnelly via The Weekly Standard, 6/22/10. The Heritage Foundation, 6/22/10]

What We're Reading

A Pakistani court sentenced five American Muslim men from Virginia who had been arrested in Punjab Province to 10 years of labor in prison for conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks.

Julia Gillard has been sworn in as Australia's first female prime minister after a surprise leadership vote in the ruling Labor Party ousted Kevin Rudd.

European investigators believe that a man arrested by Polish authorities earlier this month may be a key fixer in Europe for Israel's Mossad spy agency.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon has said the plan to demolish Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem to make way for a tourist park is illegal and unhelpful.

Russia's gas monopoly said it has resumed supplies to Belarus after a payment dispute, but Belarus still threatened to stop sending gas on to other European countries unless Moscow settles its own debts.

Kyrgyzstan's security agency claimed that relatives of the toppled president colluded with the Taliban and other Islamic militant movements to provoke the ethnic violence that has destabilized the Central Asian nation.

A new McKinsey report paints an optimistic portrait of Africa, saying it is a continent with growing national economies and an expanding consumer class that offers foreign investors the highest rates of return in the developing world.

Soldiers in El Salvador have started patrolling prisons to fight gangs and inmate-led crime.

U.S. Senators said they were unmoved by China's steps to partly free the yuan and vowed to push forward legislation to punish a Chinese currency misalignment they say distorts trade and steals jobs.

A landmark trade deal between Taiwan and China will cut tariffs on more than 800 products and open up service industries, giving a major boost to around $100 billion in annual two-way trade.

Commentary of the Day

Bruce Ackerman writes that Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal's criticism of Obama Administration officials symbolizes an accelerated partisanship of the officer corps.

Matt Yglesias puts the good news coming out of Beijing - a decision to let the Chinese currency, the yuan, appreciate - in the context of bad news for the rest of the world economy.

Henry Kissinger argues that the strategy in Afghanistan should focus on removing the threat of terrorism, not re-designing societies, and that a regional diplomacy strategy is essential to success.