By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 5, 2009
National security adviser James L. Jones suggested Sunday that the public campaign being conducted by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan on behalf of his war strategy is complicating the internal White House review underway, saying that "it is better for military advice to come up through the chain of command."
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who commands the 100,000 U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, warned bluntly last week in a London speech that a strategy for defeating the Taliban that is narrower than the one he is advocating would be ineffective and "short-sighted." The comments effectively rejected a policy option that senior White House officials, including Vice President Biden, are considering nearly eight years after the U.S. invasion.
McChrystal's statement came a day after senior White House officials challenged him over his dire assessment of the war, and what it will take to improve the U.S. position there, during a videoconference from Kabul with President Obama and his national security team. Obama then summoned McChrystal to Copenhagen the day after the general's speech for a private meeting aboard Air Force One.
Speaking on CNN's "State of the Union," Jones said he had not spoken to Obama since the president met with McChrystal. But he indicated that the Obama administration, facing the most far-reaching foreign policy decision of its time in office, expects McChrystal and his military superiors to broaden the range of alternatives for how best to proceed in Afghanistan as the strategy review unfolds over the coming weeks.
"We will be examining different options," said Jones, a retired Marine general and former supreme allied commander in Europe. "And I'm sure General McChrystal and General Petraeus and Admiral Mullen will be willing to present different options and different scenarios in this discussion that we're having."
Jones was referring to Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the Central Command, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A U.S. military official said Sunday that Pentagon leaders were alerted that McChrystal was speaking in London and were not concerned by his remarks.
"General McChrystal was simply speaking to the situation on the ground as he sees it and how he would execute the president's current strategy -- the mission he has been assigned," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive internal matter. "He was not pushing his views or in any way trying to influence policy."
Jones spoke as the White House and Pentagon reviewed the events surrounding a Taliban attack Saturday on U.S. and Afghan combat outposts near the Pakistan border. Eight U.S. soldiers and two members of the Afghan security forces were killed in what battlefield accounts describe as a day-long firefight against a numerically superior ground force.
The coordinated assault, resulting in the deadliest day for U.S. forces in a year, could factor into the administration's Afghan strategy review that so far has focused largely on McChrystal's 66-page assessment of the war. Military officials said his command would be investigating the attack, which is consistent with what Pentagon officials describe as the tactics of an increasingly able insurgency.
"We have seen over the course of the last year or so an increasing sophistication in tactics employed by the Taliban," the military official said. "In many ways, they are proving adept at what we would consider small-unit-like action."
One question at the core of the debate is whether the military benefit of sending additional U.S. combat forces to Afghanistan would outweigh the propaganda victory such a deployment would give the Taliban, which appeals to the public with messages of resistance to the foreign occupation.
McChrystal, whom Obama sent to Afghanistan in May after firing his predecessor, is calling for a new strategy that focuses on protecting Afghan civilians from the insurgency. The plan would require perhaps as many as 40,000 additional U.S. troops -- in addition to the 68,000 scheduled to be on the ground by the end of the year -- and other resources to carry out a nation-building effort on behalf of an Afghan government whose legitimacy has been severely undermined by the flawed Aug. 20 presidential election.
In his report, McChrystal warned that a "failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum" in the next 12 months "risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."
But senior White House officials and some Democratic congressional leaders are challenging some of McChrystal's assumptions about how the war should be fought and whether the Taliban, a collection of armed groups with different political and economic objectives, can be managed in other ways.
Among the questions being asked of McChrystal is whether a return of the Taliban to a position of political strength would automatically result in a new sanctuary for al-Qaeda, the stated target of Obama's Afghanistan policy. Military officials think the Taliban's return to power would mean a new haven in Afghanistan for al-Qaeda, and a sanctuary for Pakistan's Taliban from which to stage attacks against that neighboring government.
Biden and others in the White House have argued for a narrower anti-terrorism campaign, which would expedite the training of Afghan forces, intensify Predator strikes on al-Qaeda operatives, and support the government of nuclear-armed Pakistan in its fight against the Taliban, which administration officials say is proceeding better than they had predicted. Republican leaders have urged Obama to approve the resources that McChrystal is seeking.
"I think the end is much more complex than just about adding X number of troops," Jones said on CNN. " But I don't foresee the return of the Taliban, and I want to be very clear that Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling."
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.