Much of the controversy over the nomination of Chuck Hagel has focused on his views on Israel and Iran. I’m more worried, at least in the short term, about his views on Afghanistan.
When it comes to making policy vis-à-vis Israel and Iran, Hagel will be only one voice among many in the administration’s top-level “principals” meetings. Those are not primarily defense issues. But the war in Afghanistan is a matter where the secretary of defense has a disproportionate voice.
The fact that President Obama launched a surge in 2009 is probably due, in no small measure, to the influence of Secretary of Defense Bob Gates who, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, backed up General Stanley McChrystal’s request for more troops. Even so, Obama was so reluctant that he added a time limit onto the surge and sent fewer troops than McChrystal had requested. But odds are he would have done a lot less were it not for the support that Gates provided for his commander’s request.
Today we are facing another troop debate over Afghanistan: How quickly will we remove the 66,000 troops there now and what size residual force will we leave behind after 2014? If news reports are accurate, General John Allen, the top commander in Kabul, is pushing to retain as many forces as possible into 2014 and then to keep as many as 20,000 troops after 2014. But the White House–read: the president–is clearly uncomfortable with leaving that many troops behind and has pushed for lower estimates from the Pentagon. Anyone want to bet what advice Secretary of Defense Hagel would provide to President Obama about the speed and extent of a drawdown?
In this regard it is instructive to read news accounts such as this one, which report: “The choice of Mr. Hagel, the first Vietnam veteran to be nominated for the post, would add a prominent Republican to Mr. Obama’s cabinet, providing some political cover for the president’s plans to exit Afghanistan and make cuts to a military budget that has roughly doubled since the 2001 terrorist attacks.” It is instructive also to read editorials such as this one in the New York Times, which advocates bringing all the troops home this year and leaving no force in 2013 much less after 2014. That is where the president’s most liberal supports are at the moment on the war that they once argued was the “good war,” the “necessary war,” unlike the “war of choice” in Iraq.
Is it where the president is? I doubt that Obama will try to bring all the troops home this year, but he may very well bring them all home by the end of 2014, or at the very least leave behind a tiny, ineffectual residual force after 2014. A centrist secretary of defense who endorsed the views of his generals might very well try to argue Obama out of such a position. Odds are that Hagel wouldn’t. With his own record of service as an non-commissioned officer in Vietnam (it may be relevant to note that many NCOs have a low opinion of commissioned officers, especially those with lots of stars on their shoulders), Hagel might very well discount the advice of the officers who know Afghanistan best and instead opt for the position that the White House favors. That could very well be the reason why Hagel is being picked in the first place. If I were an Afghan who cared about the future of his or her country, I would be very worried right now.