"The Cost of Dithering" (Weekly Standard)

The Cost of Dithering

The delay in White House decision-making is protracting and complicating the campaign in Afghanistan

Dr. Kimberly Kagan and Dr. Frederick W. Kagan, The Weekly Standard, November 11, 2009



General Stanley McChrystal's assessment and force-requirement studies were largely complete by the beginning of August. The White House has stated that the president will not be announcing a decision until the end of November at the earliest. White House officials claim that the delay does not affect the movement of U.S. forces or our prospects for military success next year. These claims are inaccurate. The delay in White House decision-making is protracting and complicating the campaign in Afghanistan and has reduced General McChrystal's ability to prepare for and conduct decisive operations next year.

When McChrystal took command of the Afghan war in June, the White House made it clear that he was expected to make dramatic progress within a year--by the summer of 2010. McChrystal worked quickly both to understand the situation and to develop an appropriate course of action that would meet the goals of the White House strategy. His concept of operations aimed to reverse the enemy's momentum and address important problems in Afghan governance. At the same time, he oversaw the establishment of a new three-star headquarters, the deployment of the last of the additional forces his predecessor had requested for election security, the securing of the elections themselves, and major operations in Helmand and elsewhere. He also made the painful decision to pull U.S. forces back from isolated outposts that required too much manpower and were in danger of being overrun. He sought to create conditions for decisive operations in time to meet the expectations of the White House. He was supported in that effort by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen and by CENTCOM Commander General David Petraeus.

The White House has not done its part to allow General McChrystal to meet its own deadline. It was slow to receive and act on the assessment he sent, and it deliberately refused even to review his force recommendations for weeks after they were complete. In the intervening months the White House has held a series of seminars on Afghanistan and the region that should have been conducted before the new strategy was announced in March.

If the White House had immediately received and acted on General McChrystal's recommendations--which were specifically tailored to meet the objectives described in the president's March 27 speech--the following critical initiatives could already be underway: 

  • Expanding the Afghan National Security Forces as rapidly as possible toward the goal of 400,000 total, a figure agreed-upon by the Afghan Ministers of Defense and Interior and by the U.S. military's own reviews;
  • Preparing infrastructure within Afghanistan and the region to accommodate a large and rapid surge of U.S. forces;
  • Sending more forces immediately to support ongoing operations in Helmand;
  • Issuing orders to deploy all of the forces McChrystal requested as rapidly as possible.

The White House could have begun all of those initiatives and still conducted a thoughtful review over the ensuing weeks.

It takes months to prepare and deploy a large combat unit to a distant theater. But neither the unit involved nor the military organizations that have to support the move can get ready without orders. The prepare-to-deploy order, on the other hand, can be reversed--units can cancel movement plans or return to home stations more readily than they can start deploying without warning. Some units remain ready-to-go at a moment's notice, of course, like the ready brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division and some Marine units. Of course, units deployed on short notice following the completion of the McChrystal review in August could have been on the ground by now, contributing to the fight.

Ordering the most rapid possible expansion of the ANSF should have required no discussion. Expanding Afghan forces has been a core principle of almost every plan the president has considered seriously. Indeed, it was one of the primary recommendations of the policy review conducted this spring. And it is also, again, something that could have been turned off with little harm if a few months of review changed the president's mind.

White House preoccupation with troop levels has also hindered the development and implementation of a coherent political strategy to improve Afghan governance to match McChrystal's military strategy. The administration's response to the predictably flawed elections has been reactive and defensive. Even now that the election crisis has ended, the White House appears more intent on micromanaging the deployment of forces down to the last soldier than on developing a coherent approach to improving Afghan governance. The White House is now considering three, four, or five different force-level options, depending on the (official or anonymous) source. It has yet to show that it has developed any serious options for political strategy.

In the meantime, the enemy has not been idle. Taliban forces throughout the south have been preparing themselves to meet an expected American counter-offensive. They have refined their propaganda messaging both within Afghanistan and toward the U.S. They have also taken advantage of the flawed presidential elections to expound their own political vision for the country and start actively competing with the government for legitimacy.

America has vital interests in Afghanistan. The White House debate has only pointed up the continued close ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda. Pakistan's operations against its own internal foes have shown yet again how important it is for the U.S. to succeed on the Afghan side of the Durand Line if we are to help Pakistan defeat enemies that threaten Islamabad and the West.

The mission in Afghanistan remains doable. U.S. and allied forces have made some progress in areas of Helmand and are engaging the enemy in parts of Kandahar and elsewhere that we had previously ignored. Reinforcing those successes and giving General McChrystal the forces he needs to protect other key population centers and attack other important enemy sanctuaries offers a good prospect of neutralizing the insurgency. It will buy time for the administration to implement a political strategy in Afghanistan.

But the administration must also buy more time for its commander. The White House cannot sit on the general's proposals and requests for months and still expect him to meet a deadline set when he took command. It is still possible, if the White House sends General McChrystal the forces he needs, to see a significant improvement in Afghanistan in a year--but the year begins when the additional resources start flowing. That, in turn, means that Afghanistan may not seem to be doing that well next summer when both the Taliban fighting season and the congressional campaign season are at their heights. The president has a responsibility to keep Washington politics from derailing the effort in Afghanistan at a critical moment next year.

One of the keys to retaining domestic political support for the Iraq surge was the deliberate management of expectations by General Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker, and the administration generally. President Obama now faces a challenge at least as great. He must explain to the American people the need to fight the war, the need to send more forces, and the reasons to believe that success is possible. He must also explain realistically how long and serious the effort will be. And he must do it very soon.

This article originally appeared in The Weekly Standard.

Additional Off-site Authors: 
Frederick W. Kagan