Civilian, military planners have different views on new approach to Afghanistan

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 26, 2009

Two days before announcing the deployment of additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, President Obama informed Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal that he was not granting McChrystal's request to double the size of the Afghan army and police.

Cost was a factor, as were questions about whether the capacity exists to train 400,000 personnel. The president told McChrystal, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, to focus for now on fielding a little more than half that number by next October.

Ten days after Obama's speech, the U.S. command responsible for training the Afghans circulated a chart detailing the combined personnel targets for the army and police. McChrystal's goal of 400,000 remained unchanged.

"It's an open issue," a senior Pentagon official said last week.

Nearly a month after Obama unveiled his revised Afghanistan strategy, military and civilian leaders have come away with differing views of several fundamental aspects of the president's new approach, according to more than a dozen senior administration and military officials involved in Afghanistan policy, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Members of Obama's war cabinet disagree over the meaning of his pledge to begin drawing down forces in July 2011 and whether the mission has been narrowed from a proposal advanced by McChrystal in his August assessment of the war. The disagreements have opened a fault line between a desire for an early exit among several senior officials at the White House and a conviction among military commanders that victory is still achievable on their terms.

The differences are complicating implementation of the new strategy. Some officers have responded to the July 2011 date by seeking to accelerate the pace of operations, instead of narrowing them. At the White House, a senior administration official said, the National Security Council is discussing ways to increase monitoring of military and State Department activities in Afghanistan to prevent "overreaching."

The NSC's strategic guidance, a classified document that outlines the president's new approach, was described by the senior administration official as limiting military operations "in scale and scope to the minimum required to achieve two goals -- to prevent al-Qaeda safe havens and to prevent the Taliban from toppling the government." The use of resource-intensive counterinsurgency tactics -- employing U.S. forces to protect Afghan civilians from the Taliban -- is supposed to be restricted to key cities and towns in southern and eastern parts of the country, the official said.

"The strategy has fundamentally changed. This is not a COIN strategy," Vice President Biden said on MSNBC last week, using the military's shorthand for counterinsurgency. "This is not 'go out and occupy the whole country.' "

Setting limits

During a videoconference two days before the speech, Obama made it clear to McChrystal and U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry that he did not want the additional troops to fuel a broader mission. Speaking to both men from the White House Situation Room, the president told them not to deploy the forces to areas they would not be able to transfer to Afghan security forces by July 2011, according to two senior officials with knowledge of the conversation.

Obama's essential instruction was, according to one of the officials, "Don't bite off more than you can chew."

White House officials said the president opposes using the forces he has authorized to duplicate an expansive, Iraq-style counterinsurgency operation -- in part because he questions whether it will be possible to achieve a similar outcome in Afghanistan, which is less developed, and because he wants to start reducing troops in 18 months. The White House's desired end state in Afghanistan, officials said, envisions more informal local security arrangements than in Iraq, a less-capable national government and a greater tolerance of insurgent violence.

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