Obama Drove Afghan Strategy Debate
Big features on the decision-making process behind the newest new Afghanistan strategy in both NYT (“How Obama Came to Plan for ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan “) and WaPo (“Obama pressed for faster surge“) paint a flattering picture of a commander-in-chief taking control of the process.
Peter Baker sets the stage by noting the factors weighing on President Obama’s mind, most notably a visit to Arlington National Cemetary and budget projections showing the war costing roughly as much as his health care plan ($1 trillion over 10 years).
Now as his top military adviser ran through a slide show of options, Mr. Obama expressed frustration. He held up a chart showing how reinforcements would flow into Afghanistan over 18 months and eventually begin to pull out, a bell curve that meant American forces would be there for years to come.
“I want this pushed to the left,” he told advisers, pointing to the bell curve. In other words, the troops should be in sooner, then out sooner.
When the history of the Obama presidency is written, that day with the chart may prove to be a turning point, the moment a young commander in chief set in motion a high-stakes gamble to turn around a losing war. By moving the bell curve to the left, Mr. Obama decided to send 30,000 troops mostly in the next six months and then begin pulling them out a year after that, betting that a quick jolt of extra forces could knock the enemy back on its heels enough for the Afghans to take over the fight.
Anne Kornblut, Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung recount a similar tale.
On this day, Nov. 11, the president scanned the choices with a trace of irritation. At a meeting more than two weeks earlier, he had asked for a plan to deploy and pull out troops quickly — a “surge” similar to the one that his Republican predecessor had executed in Iraq, but with a fixed date to begin withdrawals.
What was in front of Obama — scenarios in which it took too long to get in and too long to get out — was not what he wanted.
“I don’t know how we can describe this as a surge,” he said in a tone that others around the table registered as annoyance. “I’m usually more sedate than this,” Obama acknowledged, according to a senior adviser who read from notes he took at the meeting.
By the time Obama returned 10 days later from a trip to Asia, military officials had come up with plans to deploy troops much more rapidly than originally proposed by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. The new plans also called for fewer U.S. troops than McChrystal had requested and specified that they would begin to come home by July 2011, starting a glide path toward ending a war that, according to opinion polls, only a minority of Americans think is worth fighting.
As described in interviews by more than a dozen senior administration and military officials who took part in the strategy review, the final number of 30,000 more American troops and the timing of their deployment were among the last policy elements to be finalized. Obama’s new strategy, which he announced in an address to the nation last week from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., would push the total U.S. military force in Afghanistan to about 100,000 by mid-2010 and make new demands on America’s NATO and other foreign partners.
Obama “didn’t just want a number picked out,” said the official, who attended all the meetings. “He wanted the strategy to drive the number.”
That the two most important newspapers in the country are running the same day with such similar stories makes it clear that this was very much part of the rollout plan. My Atlantic Council colleague, Damon Wilson, recently emphasized how much the administration learned from the poor reception their missile defense plan received and strove to get buy-in from key stakeholders before surprising them with the public release.
My strong guess is that we’ll get a slightly less flattering picture of all this in a couple of years, once the inevitable tell-all books start to come out. But it won’t matter very much by then.