Commentary Magazine


Topic: wartime leader

Progress in Marjah

The news from Marjah is pretty positive. The best overview I’ve seen was provided in this transcript of a briefing given a few days ago by Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the Marine commander in the Helmand province. He noted:

On day three we had 36 TICs, or troops in contact.  Seemingly, everywhere in Marja, we had Marines in direct- fire contact.  We have now not had direct fire in Marja in the last eight days.  So I think we’re — while we still continue to find IEDs, I think we’re very pleased with how things have settled down…. I can tell you, though, that I went to a school this morning in Marja.  There hadn’t been schools open in Marja in many years, so the fact that we now had 107 kids at the class I attended in — near city center, was pretty significant.

As for the Afghan army’s performance, he said they are “grading out here pretty well,” even if they are hardly “in the lead” as some overeager spinners in Kabul have claimed:

Some units are veteran units that we brought in from outside the AO and have done exceptionally well.  We have an Afghan battalion that for all intensive purposes has operated independently since the very beginning of the op.

We have some newer Afghan units that we have to partner with very closely.  Really they’re just out of recruit training.  So I think there’s a wide variety of the Afghan army experience here in Marja, but I can tell you that I am exceptionally proud of their great service.  These guys run to the sound of gunfire….You know, Marines don’t search any of the homes.  In an area this large, when you decide you’ve got to search a home, the guys going in are going to be Afghan soldiers.  And they’ve done that very well; they’ve earned the trust and confidence of the Marines.

The best news of all, though, is that Hamid Karzai has now visited Marjah to meet with local residents — something that had not happened after previous combat operations. Granted, he was accompanied by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who no doubt had to drag Karzai onto the helicopter, kicking and screaming, but still, this is a vast improvement. It shows some progress in McChrystal’s campaign to turn Karzai into a wartime leader who takes responsibility for security operations, even those conducted primarily by NATO forces, such as the Marjah offensive was.

None of this is to deny the obvious — that major challenges remain. Those include figuring out whether the district governor of Marjah can be effective despite reports of his having a criminal record in Germany. But overall Marjah has not proved to be nearly as tough as Fallujah. There is more hard fighting to come, especially in the summer, but it appears as though NATO forces are finally gaining all-critical momentum on the ground.

The news from Marjah is pretty positive. The best overview I’ve seen was provided in this transcript of a briefing given a few days ago by Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the Marine commander in the Helmand province. He noted:

On day three we had 36 TICs, or troops in contact.  Seemingly, everywhere in Marja, we had Marines in direct- fire contact.  We have now not had direct fire in Marja in the last eight days.  So I think we’re — while we still continue to find IEDs, I think we’re very pleased with how things have settled down…. I can tell you, though, that I went to a school this morning in Marja.  There hadn’t been schools open in Marja in many years, so the fact that we now had 107 kids at the class I attended in — near city center, was pretty significant.

As for the Afghan army’s performance, he said they are “grading out here pretty well,” even if they are hardly “in the lead” as some overeager spinners in Kabul have claimed:

Some units are veteran units that we brought in from outside the AO and have done exceptionally well.  We have an Afghan battalion that for all intensive purposes has operated independently since the very beginning of the op.

We have some newer Afghan units that we have to partner with very closely.  Really they’re just out of recruit training.  So I think there’s a wide variety of the Afghan army experience here in Marja, but I can tell you that I am exceptionally proud of their great service.  These guys run to the sound of gunfire….You know, Marines don’t search any of the homes.  In an area this large, when you decide you’ve got to search a home, the guys going in are going to be Afghan soldiers.  And they’ve done that very well; they’ve earned the trust and confidence of the Marines.

The best news of all, though, is that Hamid Karzai has now visited Marjah to meet with local residents — something that had not happened after previous combat operations. Granted, he was accompanied by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who no doubt had to drag Karzai onto the helicopter, kicking and screaming, but still, this is a vast improvement. It shows some progress in McChrystal’s campaign to turn Karzai into a wartime leader who takes responsibility for security operations, even those conducted primarily by NATO forces, such as the Marjah offensive was.

None of this is to deny the obvious — that major challenges remain. Those include figuring out whether the district governor of Marjah can be effective despite reports of his having a criminal record in Germany. But overall Marjah has not proved to be nearly as tough as Fallujah. There is more hard fighting to come, especially in the summer, but it appears as though NATO forces are finally gaining all-critical momentum on the ground.

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Mishandling Karzai

Not the least of the innovations that Gen. Stanley McChrystal has introduced is changing how the U.S. interacts with Hamid Karzai. The Obama team came into office bashing the president of Afghanistan without lining up a solid alternative. The predictable result: a key ally has been alienated for no good reason. Now McChrystal is working to shore up Karzai’s authority and especially his credentials as a wartime leader.

This Wall Street Journal article shows how McChrystal was careful to brief Karzai on plans for the offensive into Marjah and to get his sign-off before the launching of operations. As the Journal notes:

For both the Americans and the Afghans, who have been fighting together for more than eight years, it was a novel moment. As Mr. Karzai said after being roused from a nap: “No one has ever asked me to decide before.”

This attempt to bolster Karzai and involve him more in NATO decision-making seems a much more productive way to deal with him than the previous approach of scolding him in public. It is just possible that Karzai can undergo a transformation similar to that of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq, who established himself as a strong leader in 2008 by becoming the public face of military operations against Sadrist insurgents.

Not the least of the innovations that Gen. Stanley McChrystal has introduced is changing how the U.S. interacts with Hamid Karzai. The Obama team came into office bashing the president of Afghanistan without lining up a solid alternative. The predictable result: a key ally has been alienated for no good reason. Now McChrystal is working to shore up Karzai’s authority and especially his credentials as a wartime leader.

This Wall Street Journal article shows how McChrystal was careful to brief Karzai on plans for the offensive into Marjah and to get his sign-off before the launching of operations. As the Journal notes:

For both the Americans and the Afghans, who have been fighting together for more than eight years, it was a novel moment. As Mr. Karzai said after being roused from a nap: “No one has ever asked me to decide before.”

This attempt to bolster Karzai and involve him more in NATO decision-making seems a much more productive way to deal with him than the previous approach of scolding him in public. It is just possible that Karzai can undergo a transformation similar to that of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq, who established himself as a strong leader in 2008 by becoming the public face of military operations against Sadrist insurgents.

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The Task Made Harder

Eliot Cohen makes a forceful case that the president made essentially the right call on Afghanistan. (Although he notes that “the White House’s decision to send only 30,000 troops, while calling upon our allies for thousands more—perhaps as many as 10,000—makes little sense. The Europeans have repeatedly revealed their aversion to combat.”)

Cohen observes, however, that both the protracted decision-making process (including the constant leaking, which revealed schisms and doubts about the mission within the administration) and the “the incessant, unsourced, but high-level attacks from the administration on President Hamid Karzai” have made the task ahead more difficult. That task, of course, is to bolster the Afghan government and convince our enemies of our determination to win. As for the speech, Cohen writes:

The jargon of transition and exit ramps, and an 18-month target to begin withdrawal unfortunately tells our enemies to persevere through a couple of bad fighting seasons, because the Americans, or at least their leaders, do not have the determination to succeed. The president spoke of reconciling and integrating the Taliban. The Taliban are tough, and this sends the message that they only need hang on to win. Only when they conclude that the alternative is death, will they decide to abandon a war they otherwise seem likely to win.

The speech rattled not only conservatives in the U.S. but also our allies, as the New York Times reports:

President Obama’s timetable for American forces in Afghanistan rattled nerves in that country and Pakistan on Wednesday, prompting diplomats to scramble to reassure the two countries at the center of the president’s war strategy that the United States would not cut and run.

In Afghanistan, Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the only minister who commented on the speech, said the announcement that American troops could begin leaving in 18 months served as a kind of shock therapy, but caused anxiety. “Can we do it?” he asked. “That is the main question. This is not done in a moment. It is a process.”

In Pakistan, President Obama’s declaration fed longstanding fears that America would abruptly withdraw, leaving Pakistan to fend for itself.

In trying to have it all ways so as to hold on to those allies who refuse to embrace the substance of the policy he has embarked upon, the president did himself no good. (Cohen notes: “As a wartime leader he will tend many wounds, but the most grievous thus far are those he has inflicted on himself.”) Obama has embraced a policy that requires resolve and clarity, not equivocation and confusion. His West Point appearance quickly devolved into a mad scramble to repair the damage done by an ill-conceived speech. It needn’t be fatal, but it must not be repeated.

Eliot Cohen makes a forceful case that the president made essentially the right call on Afghanistan. (Although he notes that “the White House’s decision to send only 30,000 troops, while calling upon our allies for thousands more—perhaps as many as 10,000—makes little sense. The Europeans have repeatedly revealed their aversion to combat.”)

Cohen observes, however, that both the protracted decision-making process (including the constant leaking, which revealed schisms and doubts about the mission within the administration) and the “the incessant, unsourced, but high-level attacks from the administration on President Hamid Karzai” have made the task ahead more difficult. That task, of course, is to bolster the Afghan government and convince our enemies of our determination to win. As for the speech, Cohen writes:

The jargon of transition and exit ramps, and an 18-month target to begin withdrawal unfortunately tells our enemies to persevere through a couple of bad fighting seasons, because the Americans, or at least their leaders, do not have the determination to succeed. The president spoke of reconciling and integrating the Taliban. The Taliban are tough, and this sends the message that they only need hang on to win. Only when they conclude that the alternative is death, will they decide to abandon a war they otherwise seem likely to win.

The speech rattled not only conservatives in the U.S. but also our allies, as the New York Times reports:

President Obama’s timetable for American forces in Afghanistan rattled nerves in that country and Pakistan on Wednesday, prompting diplomats to scramble to reassure the two countries at the center of the president’s war strategy that the United States would not cut and run.

In Afghanistan, Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the only minister who commented on the speech, said the announcement that American troops could begin leaving in 18 months served as a kind of shock therapy, but caused anxiety. “Can we do it?” he asked. “That is the main question. This is not done in a moment. It is a process.”

In Pakistan, President Obama’s declaration fed longstanding fears that America would abruptly withdraw, leaving Pakistan to fend for itself.

In trying to have it all ways so as to hold on to those allies who refuse to embrace the substance of the policy he has embarked upon, the president did himself no good. (Cohen notes: “As a wartime leader he will tend many wounds, but the most grievous thus far are those he has inflicted on himself.”) Obama has embraced a policy that requires resolve and clarity, not equivocation and confusion. His West Point appearance quickly devolved into a mad scramble to repair the damage done by an ill-conceived speech. It needn’t be fatal, but it must not be repeated.

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Slowing to a Crawl

The New York Times observes:

The disclosure that the United States ambassador in Kabul has expressed written opposition to deploying more American troops to Afghanistan lays bare the fierce debate within the Obama administration over the direction of the war, even after weeks of deliberations and with the president on the verge of a decision.

And for those not quite privy to the ways of leaks and press manipulation, the Times notes that the anti-counterinsurgency-we’d-like-this-on-the-cheap contingent (Gens. Axelrod, Biden, and Emanuel, we presume) “seemed pleased that his perspective had entered the public debate, which has been dominated for two months by the leaked assessment of General McChrystal.” In other words, time to leak, gum up the works, and make it that much more difficult to come to a conclusion. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, for one, is fed up with the leaking and has exclaimed that “everybody ought to just shut up.”

One senses that the president is buffeted by this and that group, seemingly unwilling or unable to just decide. The helpful spinners both on and off the record assure us the president is being more “assertive” and “challenging” the advice. But still, alas, not reaching a final call. How’s it working out? “The behind-the-scenes tug-of-war over policy has become increasingly bitter.” Not as bitter as I imagine those in the field and their families may become as the seminars churn, the equivocation continues over the precise numbers to be deployed (38,000 or 36, 500? or maybe just 26,750?), and both our allies and adversaries look on slack-jawed.

It is quite a spectacle, one unlikely to endear the president to the voters or bolster his image as a wartime leader.

The New York Times observes:

The disclosure that the United States ambassador in Kabul has expressed written opposition to deploying more American troops to Afghanistan lays bare the fierce debate within the Obama administration over the direction of the war, even after weeks of deliberations and with the president on the verge of a decision.

And for those not quite privy to the ways of leaks and press manipulation, the Times notes that the anti-counterinsurgency-we’d-like-this-on-the-cheap contingent (Gens. Axelrod, Biden, and Emanuel, we presume) “seemed pleased that his perspective had entered the public debate, which has been dominated for two months by the leaked assessment of General McChrystal.” In other words, time to leak, gum up the works, and make it that much more difficult to come to a conclusion. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, for one, is fed up with the leaking and has exclaimed that “everybody ought to just shut up.”

One senses that the president is buffeted by this and that group, seemingly unwilling or unable to just decide. The helpful spinners both on and off the record assure us the president is being more “assertive” and “challenging” the advice. But still, alas, not reaching a final call. How’s it working out? “The behind-the-scenes tug-of-war over policy has become increasingly bitter.” Not as bitter as I imagine those in the field and their families may become as the seminars churn, the equivocation continues over the precise numbers to be deployed (38,000 or 36, 500? or maybe just 26,750?), and both our allies and adversaries look on slack-jawed.

It is quite a spectacle, one unlikely to endear the president to the voters or bolster his image as a wartime leader.

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