McChrystal's Afghanistan plan stays mainly intact

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."

Even the most specific change by the White House in McChrystal's war plan -- that U.S. forces begin leaving Afghanistan by July 2011 -- may be less of a turning point than envisioned. Senior administration officials said in television interviews broadcast Sunday the date would be only the beginning of a gradual withdrawal.

"We will have 100,000 forces, troops there," Gates said on NBC's "Meet the Press," "and they are not leaving in July of 2011. Some handful or some small number, or whatever the conditions permit, we'll begin to withdraw at that time."

Speaking on CNN's "State of the Union," national security adviser James L. Jones said that "2011 is not a cliff, it's a ramp."

The fundamentals of the Obama administration's approach largely mirror the counterinsurgency effort that was mounted in Iraq in the latter months of the Bush administration. In Iraq, as in Afghanistan, senior commanders focused primarily on driving enemy troops from key population centers and then safeguarding the locals in those areas from insurgent attacks.

"Iraq validated our beliefs that we know how to do this stuff," said a senior general involved in the strategy review.

The parallels to Iraq, however, caused unease among some Obama administration officials who had opposed Bush's surge and maintained during the presidential campaign that the sudden drop in violence in 2007 and 2008 was attributable largely to al-Qaeda's campaign of terror, which alienated its Sunni Arab allies in the country. "The reality is that there is a narrative that emerged during the campaign . . . that we bought off the Sunnis and got lucky," said one senior military official. "That is not what happened."

Vice President Biden was one of the biggest early skeptics that the counterinsurgency tactics employed in Iraq could work in Afghanistan, which has little history of a strong central government, few natural resources and almost no infrastructure.

Even if the United States makes strides in Afghanistan, the gains will be fleeting without help from Pakistan to snuff out havens on their side of the border. As an alternative to a soldier-intensive counterinsurgency strategy, he advocated using air power and smaller numbers of Special Operations troops to attack Taliban havens. "The range of choices got progressively narrower as the minimalist options got dropped, until you ended up with something very close to what McChrystal proposed initially," said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who participated in McChrystal's initial strategy review.

In the end, the comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy that McChrystal advocated for in August was embraced as the best of several difficult choices.

"There are no silver bullets," Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, said at a Council on Foreign Relations presentation last week. "We looked for them."

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