Tensions rise over Afghanistan war strategy
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday that President Obama’s advisors should keep their guidance private, in effect admonishing the top commander in Afghanistan for publicly advocating an approach requiring more troops even as the White House reassesses its strategy.
The comment by Gates came a day after Obama’s national security advisor, James L. Jones, said that military commanders should convey their advice through the chain of command -- a reaction to Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s public statements in support of his troop-intensive strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan.
The exchanges suggested some disarray in the Obama administration’s attempts to forge a new policy on Afghanistan and underscored wide differences among top officials over the correct approach.
In May, Obama tapped McChrystal, a special forces commander, to take charge of the Afghanistan effort and institute a sweeping counterinsurgency strategy. Obama and McChrystal spoke Friday aboard Air Force One on an airport tarmac in Copenhagen, and White House officials did not detail what the two talked about.
Still, Pentagon officials dismissed suggestions Monday that the 55-year-old commander was in any professional jeopardy. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said it would be “absurd” to think McChrystal had lost favor or standing with the administration.
Gates’ comments, in an address before an Assn. of the U.S. Army meeting, came in the midst of what the Pentagon chief called a “hyper-partisan” debate over Afghanistan policy. Many Republicans and even some leading Democrats demand the president comply with commanders’ troop requests.
The deaths of eight U.S. service members in an insurgent attack in a remote area over the weekend fueled the political fight. At least one prominent Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, argued that the failure to send more troops would lead to additional deaths.
With public opinion turning against the war, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will meet today with congressional leaders. The president is scheduled to chair a strategy session Wednesday with top advisors.
Gates, demanding room for the administration’s deliberations, said the resulting decisions would be among the most important of Obama’s presidency.
“It is important that we take our time to do all we can to get this right,” Gates said in his address. “And in this process, it is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations, civilians and military alike, provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately.”
Morrell said Gates’ comments were not solely directed at McChrystal.
“He is urging all military and civilian advisors to the president to keep their counsel to him private,” Morrell said. “At this stage in the deliberations about Afghanistan, no one involved should be speaking publicly about them.”
In London last week, McChrystal said his strategy stood the best chance of success in Afghanistan. The general has submitted a request for up to 40,000 additional troops to support his approach to the war.
In a question-and-answer session after the speech, he rejected proposals to limit U.S. involvement to attacking extremists and pursuing Al Qaeda militants, the type of plan Biden favors.
Asked whether it would be sufficient in the future for the U.S. to limit itself to targeted strikes at militants in Afghanistan, he said: “A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a shortsighted strategy.”
On Sunday, Jones seemed to suggest that McChrystal was talking out of turn and that military advice should “come up through the chain of command.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, echoing comments by Jones and Gates, said the process Obama is following is “one of the most open” she has seen.
“It is unusual for all advice about military matters to be in public for a president,” Clinton said in a joint appearance with Gates before students at George Washington University.
Gates, responding to a question about whether McChrystal was being “muzzled,” said the U.S. and allied commander would testify before Congress, as Republicans are demanding, once Obama has made his strategy decisions.
Gates and Clinton said the U.S. objective in Afghanistan remains to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” Al Qaeda, but the plans for achieving that goal are under review.
However, the administration is not considering plans to leave Afghanistan, Gates said.
For Obama, it is the second such assessment in only nine months. Though he has long considered Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” Obama was confronted with flagging U.S. fortunes when he took office in January and launched a strategy review.
In March, he unveiled the results: a sweeping strategy seen as a victory for advocates of deeper U.S. involvement that could require larger numbers of U.S. troops working to protect the Afghan population and build trust in the country’s government.
Obama replaced the former allied commander, Gen. David D. McKiernan, with McChrystal, an expert in the counterinsurgency style of warfare. He also gave wide latitude to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in the Mideast, and to his special representative for the region, Richard Holbrooke, a supporter of a large U.S. effort.
An immediate job for the revamped military strategy was to safeguard Afghanistan’s August presidential election, which officials regarded as key to restoring the Afghan public’s trust in the government.
Toward that end, Obama ordered 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, a deployment increasing the U.S. force to more than 60,000. In addition, there are about 38,000 North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led troops.
The U.S. and NATO-led forces succeeded in keeping the presidential election free of widespread violence. Incumbent President Hamid Karzai claimed victory, but the balloting was marred by charges of rampant fraud.
As the election dispute threatened to further undermine public confidence in the government, Obama last month appeared to back off the pledge to go with deeper U.S. involvement. By late September, Obama said additional reviews were needed to fine-tune the U.S. strategy, both in the wake of the botched election and deteriorating security.
Both Clinton and Gates defended the pace of the White House assessment.
“We’re trying to look at it from the ground up,” Clinton said, and “further our core objectives of protecting our country.”
Times staff writers Greg Miller, Richard Simon and Peter Nicholas in Washington contributed to this report.