McChrystal's plan for Afghanistan war remains largely intact

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, greets members of the Afghan parliament.
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, greets members of the Afghan parliament. (Musadeq Sadeq/associated Press)
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By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 7, 2009

When he finishes testifying on Capitol Hill this week, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, will return to Kabul to implement a war strategy that is largely unchanged after a three-month-long White House review of the conflict.

In interviews and congressional testimony last week, members of President Obama's national security team said the U.S. effort in Afghanistan would be more focused and limited. "A good part of the debate and the discussion," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the House Armed Services Committee, revolved around ways to "narrow the mission."

But other than a decision not to double immediately the size of Afghanistan's uniformed security forces and the president's pledge to begin withdrawing forces by July 2011, a deadline that has grown less firm since he announced it -- Gates said Sunday it might involve only a "handful" of troops -- the new approach does not order McChrystal to wage the war in a fundamentally different way from what he outlined in an assessment he sent the White House in late August.

"Stan's mission really hasn't narrowed," said a senior Pentagon official involved with Afghanistan policy. "There won't be a radical change in the way he executes."

McChrystal intends to use the 30,000 U.S. reinforcements authorized by Obama and as many as 7,000 soldiers pledged by other NATO nations to protect key cities and towns in southern and eastern parts of the country, where the Taliban insurgency is strongest. By focusing on securing population centers, he hopes to reverse enemy momentum, foster more responsive local government and, where possible, persuade Taliban fighters through a mixture of pressure and incentives to lay down their arms.

In his August assessment, McChrystal said his mission was "defeating the insurgency," which he defined as "a condition where the insurgency no longer threatens the viability of the state." But his use of the word "defeat" in slides displayed during a White House Situation Room presentation prompted concern among some participants that U.S. goals were too expansive. Eventually, according to U.S. officials familiar with the process, the participants decided to refine the goal to degrading the Taliban.

McChrystal's initial assessment was based on the administration's March strategy, which endorsed a counterinsurgency approach. "What troubled me fairly early on was that those decisions were being interpreted fairly broadly as full-scale nation-building and creating a strong central government in Afghanistan, neither of which was our intent," Gates told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week. The military would now "focus our resources where the population is most threatened," he said.

But the narrower mission is unlikely to have much impact in Afghanistan, where a countrywide nation-building effort was never seriously pondered. Even before the strategy review, senior military officials spent most of the summer and early fall moving troops from remote mountain valleys to cities and towns where the Taliban still holds considerable sway.

The White House has shied away from labeling this phase of the war a counterinsurgency campaign because of concern that it connotes nation-building -- "counterinsurgency" was conspicuously absent from an administration fact sheet about the strategy issued after Obama's speech. But McChrystal has left little doubt that counterinsurgency is what he intends to do. He used the word multiple times in talking to his troops Wednesday morning in Kabul.

Military officials also maintain that he has been emphasizing since he arrived in Afghanistan in June many of the issues and initiatives now deemed priorities by the White House. They include accelerating the training of uniformed Afghan security forces, development of community-defense militias and targeting of development projects to key population centers.

In southern Afghanistan, where the Obama administration dispatched nearly 22,000 troops last spring, military commanders and State Department civilians have already focused their largely limited reconstruction resources on areas where the new forces are operating.

"Many of the things we are talking about, we have already started," said Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, who until last summer oversaw the military reconstruction effort in southern Afghanistan. "We've already begun a more focused approach."

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