It's easy -- and satisfying -- to mock the Obama Administration for their serial reviews of war strategy for Afghanistan, as their continuous review process suggests they still haven't figured out what they're doing in "the good war." But they're actually right to hold periodic reviews of whether the war is achieving its objectives. We owe no less to the men and women fighting this arduous campaign than to ensure the risks they are taking are essential to our national security.
Which is not to say the President was right to set an artificial deadline for drawing down the surge force. In announcing as part of the surge that its conclusion would begin in July 2011, the president badly compromised the effectiveness of both the military and political strands of his own strategy.
That strategy consists of taking the fight to the Taliban's strongholds, building Afghan security forces capable of taking over the fight, dramatically improving Afghanistan's capacity for governance, setting the domestic and regional relationships conducive to preventing Taliban and al Qaeda resurgence, and handing over provinces to Afghan control as the political and military conditions allow.
The current review is debating how many troops to withdraw to meet the president's promise of a significant drawdown. Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, believes 15,000 should be the initial bid. Senior administration officials tell journalists killing Osama bin Laden creates an opening for a major change in the agreed approach. The president has stated that we have achieved most of our objectives, suggesting a major drawdown is possible.
The military leadership reportedly advocates the smallest drawdown politically acceptable to the White House so that they have the power to keep pressure on the enemy. They believe our forces are breaking the back of the resistance and can meet the 2014 withdrawal timeline provided the president doesn't tie their hands in the meantime.
Secretary Gates reprised his elegant orchestration from earlier reviews, taking a planeload of journalists to Afghanistan to foster stories in advance of the decision, making the case for the current strategy, and emphasizing in public that his counsel to the President will be a drawdown of only a few thousand support troops. By publicly endorsing the military's position, he makes more difficult any precipitous withdrawal and also shields the military from charges of "boxing the president in," something the White House bitterly accused them of in earlier reviews.
What the White House wanted was the military to give their advice solely in private, minimizing the cost to the president's for ignoring that advice. They wrongly equated a public debate in advance of the president setting policy as insubordination.
The U.S. military has wide latitude to influence national security policy in the making; only once the president and Congress establish policy and law must they salute or resign. Thirty five years into an all-volunteer force, when so few Americans have military experience, it is crucial not only to good policy but to public understanding that our military give their judgment to educate our judgment.
The president has the right to choose policies contrary to their advice; it's his job as Commander in Chief to weigh the broader costs and trade-offs associated with governing our country. And president's often fail to provide the resources -- soldiers, money, and time -- that military leaders recommend. President Lincoln needed a faster timeline than General McClellan believed possible, President Roosevelt chose to prioritize the European theater before the Pacific, President Clinton went to war over Kosovo without a ground campaign, President Bush approved a war plan for the 2003 invasion of Iraq that most of the military leadership considered unduly risky, President Obama went to war in Libya despite military (and civilian) concerns about the limits of our interest and of the means he would commit to the fight.
But it's the president's choice. That's what he gets elected for. He does not, however, get to make his choices without having to explain why he disregarded military advice. There may be compelling reasons; in the case of Afghanistan that would be difficult to square with the president's own earlier statements about the importance of the war. If President Obama chooses to disregard our military and civilian defense leadership's counsel on Afghanistan, he will owe them -- and us -- an explanation.
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