Commentary Magazine


What Strategy? This Strategy

“What I’m not also gonna do, though, is put the resource question before the strategy question. Until I’m satisfied that we’ve got the right strategy I’m not gonna be sending some young man or woman over there—beyond what we already have.”

So President Obama told David Gregory on Meet the Press Sunday. This raises an obvious question: Did the president read the strategic review that General Stanley McChrystal submitted on August 30?

It’s been almost a month since that document was submitted, and not only has the president not acted on it, he also apparently has prevented McChrystal from submitting the resource requirements needed to carry out his recommended actions. Presumably this is why some frustrated insider leaked a copy of the McChrystal review—redacted so as to remove all classified information—to Bob Woodward.

If the president has in fact read the 66-page assessment, it is hard to see how he can claim not to be satisfied about having a strategy for success in Afghanistan. The three-stage strategy is right there on pages 2-18:

First, ISAF must re-focus its operations to gain the initiative in seriously threatened, populated areas by working directly with GIRoA [Government of Afghanistan] institutions and people in local communities to gain their support and to diminish insurgent access and influence. This stage is clearly decisive to the overall effort. It will require sufficient resources to gain the initiative and definitively check the insurgency. A failure to reverse the momentum of the insurgency will not only preclude success in Afghanistan, it will result in a loss of public and political support outside Afghanistan. …

As ISAF and ANSF capabilities grow over the next 12-24 months and the insurgency diminishes in critical areas, ISAF will begin a second stage–a strategic consolidation. As ANSF and GIRoA increasingly take the lead for security operations and as new civilian and military capacity arrives, security operations will expand to wider areas while consolidating initial gains. These efforts will increase the space in which the population feels protected and served by their government, and insulate them from a return of insurgent influence. …

When the insurgent groups no longer pose an existential threat to GIRoA, ISAF will move into a third stage of sustained security to ensure achieved gains are durable as ISAF forces begin to draw down. As ANSF demonstrate the capability to defeat remaining pockets of insurgents on their own, ISAF will transition to a train, advise, and assist role. UNAMA and the international community will have increased freedom of action to continue to help develop the Afghan state and meet the needs of the Afghan people.”

So there you have it. First, gaining the initiative, then strategic consolidation, followed by sustained security. That’s the core of the strategy that General McChrystal has come up with. And it’s a good one. He does not sugarcoat the present situation. He says bluntly: “ISAF is not adequately executing the basics of COIN [counterinsurgency] doctrine.” So his first emphasis is on doing counterinsurgency properly. But he stresses throughout that it’s impossible to do proper COIN given the paucity of resources devoted to Afghanistan, even following the troop increases of the past year. As McChrystal writes:

Proper resourcing will be critical. The campaign in Afghanistan has been historically under-resourced and remains so today–ISAF is operating in a culture of poverty.

Consequently, ISAF requires more forces. This increase partially reflects previously validated, yet un-sourced, requirements. This also stems from the new mix of capabilities essential to execute the new strategy. Some efficiency will be gained through better use of ISAF’s existing resources, eliminating redundancy, and the leveraging of ANSF growth, increases in GIRoA capacity, international community resources, and the population itself. Nonetheless, ISAF requires capabilities and resources well in excess of these efficiency gains. The greater resources will not be sufficient to achieve success, but will enable implementation of the new strategy. Conversely, inadequate resources will likely result in failure.

Keep in mind that this is the assessment of the administration’s handpicked general, who was brought in to replace a competent but uninspiring incumbent; he was judged the best man for the job. General McChrystal has done what was expected of him. He has delivered a cogent and impressive review of the situation, one that lays out his new strategy. Now he is simply waiting for the resources needed to execute that strategy. Without those resources, the “likely result,” he warns, is “failure.”

What more does the president need before he acts? As Bill Kristol has noted, it is striking that Obama is trying to turn the reform of the health-care system into a life-or-death crisis that requires immediate action, even though there is no reason to believe that our health-care system is any worse off today than it was 20 years ago; in fact, it’s probably a good deal better. Yet at the same time, the president is slow-rolling our commander in Afghanistan, who is presiding over a genuine crisis in which people, including American service personnel, are dying every day. It is right and proper for the president to insist on a good strategy before committing more troops to harm’s way. But the leak of the McChrystal assessment makes clear that such a strategy exists. The president now must show the will to execute it, notwithstanding the irresponsible opposition of so many of his fellow Democrats who have turned against a war whose initiation they wholeheartedly supported.

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