Afghanistan Commander McChrystal's Washington Trip Delayed

By Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 9, 2009

The White House has told the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan to delay a planned trip here Friday to brief President Obama and his senior advisers on his recommendation for a major troop increase.

Officials had hoped to have Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and what national security adviser James L. Jones called "all the key players" speak to Obama in person by the end of this week, leading to final deliberations over a forward strategy.

But "we're not finished," Jones said Thursday, and meetings may extend beyond next week. When the White House is ready, he said, McChrystal -- along with the U.S. ambassadors to Afghanistan and Pakistan -- will fly to Washington so that the three "can meet with the president before a decision is made."

McChrystal's distance from this month's high-level discussions illustrates both the determination of the new commander in chief to reshape the White House's relationship with the military and the complexity of the decision Obama must make.

Unlike the Bush administration, which repeatedly emphasized that the new direction it took in the unpopular Iraq war in 2007 was blessed and orchestrated by its commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, Obama has solicited a broader range of views. White House officials have emphasized that McChrystal's assessment that tens of thousands additional troops are needed to resist Taliban advances is just one of a number of positions being considered.

The State Department, the intelligence community and other major actors have presented their views during the ongoing White House meetings, and the appearance of Karl W. Eikenberry, the ambassador to Afghanistan, and Anne Patterson, his counterpart in Pakistan, are to be given significant weight. Some at the table have suggested a status quo strategy in which the current troop level of 68,000 would be maintained and more attention would be given to building the Afghan military, seeking reconciliation with some insurgent elements and solidifying ties with Pakistan.

Praise for Obama's Methods

Although the military overwhelmingly supports McChrystal's recommendation for an expanded counterinsurgency, with additional troops in Afghanistan, several senior defense officials said they approve of the way Obama is handling the deliberations.

"This commander in chief uses the chain of command," one official said. "There are a lot of military leaders who very much appreciate that." Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen is especially appreciative of the way Obama has turned to him and to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to represent the views of the armed forces, the official said.

But the balance can be a delicate one. Senior Republican lawmakers who support McChrystal's request for more troops began demanding weeks ago that Obama bring the commander back to testify before Congress -- as Petraeus did in explaining why President George W. Bush's decision to "surge" thousands more troops into Iraq was the right one.

Many in the military, however, disagreed with Petraeus's approach and resented his prominence as its spokesman and guarantor, along with his weekly videoconferences and frequent face-to-face meetings with Bush. Petraeus considered himself "an army of one in defending the strategy publicly and in Washington," according to an officer who served in Iraq during the surge and was familiar with the general's apparent thinking.

Other current and former senior military officers have questioned whether the fact that McChrystal's recommendation has become public before Obama decides whether to accept it may ultimately undercut his effectiveness. "What he has tried to do," said a retired senior general and wartime commander of McChrystal, "is to say, 'I'm not against the president; I'll do what I'm ordered to do.' But if the administration essentially dismisses his whole theory of the case, then I think he's in a weakened position."

Pentagon Chief Weighs In

Gates has resisted calls for McChrystal to testify, saying that the general is needed at his command post. At the same time, he asked for and received Obama's commitment to a personal appearance by McChrystal at some point in the White House deliberations.

"The secretary will work with the president to determine the appropriate time for General McChrystal to come back and meet face-to-face with the president and the rest of his national security team so that he can present his case before any decision is made," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said. "It's going to happen. It's just a question of timing."

As he has in four previous meetings this month, McChrystal will appear at Friday's closed-door session via a video connection from Kabul. It will be the first time he has occupied center stage, presenting to Obama and his top advisers his full assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and his request for tens of thousands more troops. Jones supervised a rehearsal of the presentation at the White House on Thursday.

McChrystal initially planned to arrive in Washington in time for the meeting, "but he was told it would be best if he stayed in Afghanistan" for the time being, a senior military official in Kabul said. The message, which originated with Jones, was conveyed by Gates.

Although officials in Washington insisted that the decision to delay the trip reflected only the timing of White House deliberations, this military official said that it was equally a reflection of the desire of both Gates and Mullen to take the lead military role in the discussions. Gates, he said, has worked hard to forge a close relationship with Obama and thinks he can effectively represent the Pentagon's positions.

Mullen is determined to fulfill his responsibility to represent the views of all the service chiefs in a way he thinks was circumvented under Bush, a Pentagon official said. "Our perspective," he said, "is that [Obama] prefers to use the chain of command and that he wants to hear what the chiefs think."

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