Fine Print: McChrystal's Comments on War Misunderstood

Asked if the situation in Afghanistan precludes a lengthy debate on strategy, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal called the process
Asked if the situation in Afghanistan precludes a lengthy debate on strategy, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal called the process "incredibly important." (By Kirsty Wigglesworth -- Associated Press)
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By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Commentators who say Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is pressuring the White House to accept his ideas or else didn't pay close attention to his remarks last week in London.

"I'm certainly not going to circumvent any political leadership, because at the end of the day the political leadership are the people who I work for, and I'm proud to do that," McChrystal told the International Institute for Strategic Studies last Thursday. Once a decision on troop levels is made, he said, he will carry it out.

Acknowledging that the White House and others are reexamining "our goals and objectives" in the Afghanistan war, McChrystal called the process "a very detailed policy-level debate" that is "incredibly important and incredibly healthy." He said resources, including troop levels, should be based on goals: "I don't think that if we align our goals and our resources that we'll have a significant problem."

Some reports have said McChrystal is pushing for a quick decision. The general said in London, for example, that "time is important" and that he would like the process "to go as quickly as possible." But when asked directly if there was enough time for debate, he replied, "I don't think we have the luxury of going so fast we make the wrong decision." He said that "a healthy public debate, a healthy decision-making process" that results in "resolute execution" by the Afghans, the United States and the coalition, would change "the time horizon."

Most of his prepared remarks dealt with the impact of 30 years of war on Afghans and how that affects the nation today. Although he described the situation as "serious" and "in some ways deteriorating," he added that is not the case everywhere, citing "huge positive gain" in women's rights, road construction and education.

"Who's winning?" he asked. "It depends on who you ask." In the end, he said, while the views of NATO governments and the news media will affect the situation, "this is going to be decided in the minds and perceptions of the Afghan people."

Many reports have said that McChrystal has recommended 40,000 additional troops for the war. In fact, he has put forward a range of troop levels. The highest level mentioned, 30,000 to 40,000, would provide the lowest risk of failure to reach the president's goals; sending 10,000 would result in the highest risk. McChrystal referred to this obliquely in London, saying, "I've laid out my analysis on what force I think is required, and I've put risks associated with that, so people will make decisions based on that."

Last month, McChrystal

talked with senators who

visited Kabul about his troop recommendations; Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was one of them. Asked on CBS News's "Face the Nation" on Sunday about McChrystal's recommendation, Levin said, "First of all, there's going to be options offered -- it's not just 40 [thousand]."

Last month on ABC, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who also met with McChrystal, characterized the general's recommendation this way: "It will be high-risk, medium-risk, low-risk."

One of McChrystal's questioners in London asked whether the United States would consider itself successful if it could deal with Afghanistan two years from now much the way it is dealing with Pakistan today, targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders with drone strikes without having coalition soldiers on the ground. Vice President Biden is said to advocate that position, and McChrystal's "no" answer is being treated as opposition to it.

"You have to navigate from where you are, not where you wish to be," he said. The general said that unlike with Pakistan, "we are in Afghanistan [with nearly 68,000 U.S. troops]. We've established relationships, expectations, both with the Afghan people, the Afghan government [and] the region."

And whereas, he said, he "absolutely" thinks "the threat of al-Qaeda and Taliban senior leadership are critical to stability in the region . . . I also believe that a strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a shortsighted strategy."

A great deal of discussion was prompted by McChrystal's remark that "they [may] crush me someday" -- "they" implying his bosses in the White House who have questioned the leak of his 66-page assessment of the war and his recent public statements. McChrystal said that he has had "the opportunity to speak my mind absolutely" and that his senior leadership "not only encouraged that, they've demanded that." He went on, "There may be a limit to it, and they [may] crush me someday," but he quickly added: "But no, I'm just kidding. They absolutely demanded that. That is very healthy, so I feel very good about it."

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's comment Monday -- that civilian and military officials taking part in the Afghanistan deliberations should "provide our best advice to the president candidly, but privately" -- may be a sign that the limit for McChrystal's public appearances has been reached.

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