As Jennifer points out, James Jones isn’t helping. The flap over the McChrystal speech has overshadowed comments Jones made on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday show, in which he gave a brief assessment that was, as we say in the military, “180-out” from McChrystal’s. The Washington Post quotes this excerpt from the Jones interview:
“I think the end is much more complex than just about adding X number of troops,” Jones said on CNN. . . . “But I don’t foresee the return of the Taliban, and I want to be very clear that Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling.”
Jones explains that he and McChrystal are not really in disagreement, because McChrystal’s more pessimistic predictions are “hypothetical” — a characterization that implies there is such a thing as a non-hypothetical prediction. What appears clear, other than that Jones and McChrystal are working from different hypotheses, is that the administration perceives a need for obfuscation.
If Obama himself were emitting clear signals about what he is committed to in Afghanistan, this kind of fundamental opposition among his advisers would be effectively muted. The republic has survived such disagreements many times. But Obama has ordered a wholesale reconsideration of his policy for the second time in six months, without stating an intelligible purpose for it or making a clear case for what prompted it. In the face of his public silence, the Obama policy on Afghanistan has to be deduced from older pronouncements, the elliptical and contradictory statements of his officials, and meeting notes, like this passage reported by WaPo:
One question at the core of the [administration’s] debate is whether the military benefit of sending additional U.S. combat forces to Afghanistan would outweigh the propaganda victory such a deployment would give the Taliban, which appeals to the public with messages of resistance to the foreign occupation.
It was clear during the Bush years that absurd propositions like this one — that the Taliban would have us right where they want us if we sent more troops — got only the consideration they deserved. There was a constant posture, an irreducible policy commitment, by which to predict the fate of such debating points. Obama’s signals, however, are Delphic in their ambiguity, and each signal from his subordinates and their deliberations are correspondingly more significant. What we may be seeing soon is the “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?” signal McChrystal was warned about — coming, in this case, from our NATO allies and the American people.