Tensions rise over Afghanistan war strategy
As Obama's team works on its plans, McChrystal and other advisors
are asked to keep the process more private.
By Christi Parsons
October 6, 2009
Reporting from Washington
Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday that President Obama's advisors
should keep their guidance private, in effect admonishing the top
commander in Afghanistan for publicly advocating an approach requiring
more troops even as the White House reassesses its strategy.
The comment by Gates came a day after Obama's national security
advisor, James L. Jones, said that military commanders should convey
their advice through the chain of command -- a reaction to Army Gen.
Stanley A. McChrystal's public statements in support of his
troop-intensive strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan.
The exchanges suggested some disarray in the Obama administration's
attempts to forge a new policy on Afghanistan and underscored wide
differences among top officials over the correct approach.
In May, Obama tapped McChrystal, a special forces commander, to take
charge of the Afghanistan effort and institute a sweeping
counterinsurgency strategy. Obama and McChrystal spoke Friday aboard
Air Force One on an airport tarmac in Copenhagen, and White House
officials did not detail what the two talked about.
Still, Pentagon officials dismissed suggestions Monday that the
55-year-old commander was in any professional jeopardy. Pentagon
spokesman Geoff Morrell said it would be "absurd" to think McChrystal
had lost favor or standing with the administration.
Gates' comments, in an address before an Assn. of the U.S. Army
meeting, came in the midst of what the Pentagon chief called a
"hyper-partisan" debate over Afghanistan policy. Many Republicans and
even some leading Democrats demand the president comply with
commanders' troop requests.
The deaths of eight U.S. service members in an insurgent attack in a
remote area over the weekend fueled the political fight. At least one
prominent Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, argued
that the failure to send more troops would lead to additional deaths.
With public opinion turning against the war, Obama and Vice President
Joe Biden will meet today with congressional leaders. The president is
scheduled to chair a strategy session Wednesday with top advisors.
Gates, demanding room for the administration's deliberations, said the
resulting decisions would be among the most important of Obama's
"It is important that we take our time to do all we can to get this
right," Gates said in his address. "And in this process, it is
imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations, civilians
and military alike, provide our best advice to the president candidly
Morrell said Gates' comments were not solely directed at McChrystal.
"He is urging all military and civilian advisors to the president to
keep their counsel to him private," Morrell said. "At this stage in the
deliberations about Afghanistan, no one involved should be speaking
publicly about them."
In London last week, McChrystal said his strategy stood the best chance
of success in Afghanistan. The general has submitted a request for up
to 40,000 additional troops to support his approach to the war.
In a question-and-answer session after the speech, he rejected
proposals to limit U.S. involvement to attacking extremists and
pursuing Al Qaeda militants, the type of plan Biden favors.
Asked whether it would be sufficient in the future for the U.S. to
limit itself to targeted strikes at militants in Afghanistan, he said:
"A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is
probably a shortsighted strategy."
On Sunday, Jones seemed to suggestthat McChrystal was talking out of
turn and that military advice should "come up through the chain of
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, echoing comments by Jones
and Gates, said the process Obama is following is "one of the most
open" she has seen.
"It is unusual for all advice about military matters to be in public
for a president," Clinton said in a joint appearance with Gates before
students at George Washington University.
Gates, responding to a question about whether McChrystal was being
"muzzled," said the U.S. and allied commander would testify before
Congress, as Republicans are demanding, once Obama has made his
Gates and Clinton said the U.S. objective in Afghanistan remains to
"disrupt, dismantle and defeat" Al Qaeda, but the plans for achieving
that goal are under review.
However, the administration is not considering plans to leave
Afghanistan, Gates said.
For Obama, it is the second such assessment in only nine months. Though
he has long considered Afghanistan a "war of necessity," Obama was
confronted with flagging U.S. fortunes when he took office in January
and launched a strategy review.
In March, he unveiled the results: a sweeping strategy seen as a
victory for advocates of deeper U.S. involvement that could require
larger numbers of U.S. troops working to protect the Afghan population
and build trust in the country's government.
Obama replaced the former allied commander, Gen. David D. McKiernan,
with McChrystal, an expert in the counterinsurgency style of warfare.
He also gave wide latitude to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of
U.S. forces in the Mideast, and to his special representative for the
region, Richard Holbrooke, a supporter of a large U.S. effort.
An immediate job for the revamped military strategy was to safeguard
Afghanistan's August presidential election, which officials regarded as
key to restoring the Afghan public's trust in the government.
Toward that end, Obama ordered 21,000 additional U.S. troops to
Afghanistan, a deployment increasing the U.S. force to more than
60,000. In addition, there are about 38,000 North Atlantic Treaty
The U.S. and NATO-led forces succeeded in keeping the presidential
election free of widespread violence. Incumbent President Hamid Karzai
claimed victory, but the balloting was marred by charges of rampant
As the election dispute threatened to further undermine public
confidence in the government, Obama last month appeared to back off the
pledge to go with deeper U.S. involvement. By late September, Obama
said additional reviews were needed to fine-tune the U.S. strategy,
both in the wake of the botched election and deteriorating security.
Both Clinton and Gates defended the pace of the White House assessment.
"We're trying to look at it from the ground up," Clinton said, and
"further our core objectives of protecting our country."
Copyright 2009 Los Angeles Times