Can Obama Say No To His Generals On Afghanistan?

President Obama and Gen. McChrystal at an Oval Office meeting in May i i

President Obama meets with Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the Oval Office in May. McChrystal has asked the Pentagon for as many as 40,000 additional troops in Afghanistan. A key White House meeting on Afghanistan strategy takes place Wednesday afternoon. Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
President Obama and Gen. McChrystal at an Oval Office meeting in May

President Obama meets with Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the Oval Office in May. McChrystal has asked the Pentagon for as many as 40,000 additional troops in Afghanistan. A key White House meeting on Afghanistan strategy takes place Wednesday afternoon.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

It was less than five months ago when President Obama sent Gen. Stanley McChrystal to Afghanistan as the top military commander to devise a new strategy for the flailing U.S. war effort.

Now that McChrystal has reported back to the Pentagon that as many as 40,000 additional troops are needed, the Obama administration has put out the word that it wants to consider a range of options, including a more limited role for a smaller U.S. force.

Obama met Wednesday afternoon with his full team of national security advisers, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Vice President Joe Biden, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and McChrystal and other generals — via satellite — to discuss the next steps in Afghanistan.

But it won't be easy for Obama to say no to his generals.

"To undercut the guy who they just sent out there to great fanfare as the guy they needed to carry out their new strategy, there's big political risk in that," says Thomas Donnelly, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "I don't think there is a very good historical analogy in this regard."

The president, of course, has the final say on troop deployments, and he says he wants to take enough time to ensure that he makes the right decision. But Obama has painted himself into a tight spot politically.

During the presidential campaign, he consistently called Afghanistan the "necessary war" and pledged to throw new resources into a conflict he said had been neglected for too long. After taking office, one of his early moves was to dispatch 21,000 extra U.S. troops to Afghanistan — raising the total there to more than 60,000 troops currently.

Scaling back now could appear to many as a hasty reversal, particularly for a president who came into office without much of a foreign policy or military background.

"Given the relative inexperience of the new commander in chief, that makes it that much more difficult," says Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University. "If the president were Dwight D. Eisenhower, the situation would be radically different."

Selling The Decision To Send More Troops

Gates and Mullen have yet to weigh in officially. If they end up opposing an escalation in Afghanistan, it could give Obama some room for cover. But privately, most military officials appear to back McChrystal.

Obama's national security adviser, retired Gen. James Jones, could also help him sell a different policy. And Biden, who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his time in Congress, is known to oppose a dramatic escalation.

But even with their help, Obama would be in effect staking his presidency on his personal Afghan policy if he turns down McChrystal's request.

"If he really concludes that it's the wrong thing to do to escalate, it would be incredibly politically courageous for him to decide to say no to the generals," says Matthew Baum, a professor of global communications at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "It could be his political undoing."

The political reaction would be fierce and swift, with Republicans already salivating at the prospect of attacking Obama as being weak on defense.

"They've been waiting for a security kind of issue," Harvey Sapolsky, a professor of public policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says of Obama's Republican critics. "That's been their strength, and he'd be giving them one."

In fact, those attacks have already started, with Republicans blasting Obama for moving too slowly in his decision-making.

"All the experts, including Gen. McChrystal, agree that we need a properly resourced counterinsurgency strategy, and we need it now," Republican Sen. Kit Bond, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said last week on the Senate floor. "It is time to listen to our commanders on the ground, not the ever-changing political winds whispering defeat in Washington."

Weighing Risks And Rewards Of A 'Surge' In Afghanistan

Some Republicans have even suggested that Obama could jeopardize his relationship with the military if he spurns the generals.

But Douglas Lovelace, director of the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, rejects that notion. Lovelace says military commanders are strongly dedicated to the notion of civilian control of the military.

"There will always be those who are second-guessing, but we have a very professional U.S. armed forces today, and they understand civil-military relations," says Lovelace, a retired Army colonel. "I don't think that there's going to be any type of groundswell within the ranks should he decide not to fulfill completely any force request that Gen. McChrystal might have made."

Still, if the less risky course in the short term is to approve McChrystal's recommendation, an escalation in Afghanistan could prove to be riskier in the long run.

Violence has been rising all summer in Afghanistan, along with U.S. casualties, and military officials warn that U.S. combat deaths could rise even further if the United States adopts the more aggressive counterinsurgency approach being advocated by McChrystal.

Opinion polls show that U.S. public support for the Afghan war has been dropping steadily. It won't be easy to sell an escalation after eight years of having American troops on the ground.

"People are going to wake up one day and realize that suddenly we have another escalating, open-ended, messy conflict in which we are neck deep, no idea of how we're going to get out, no idea how to define victory, and say, 'We never signed up for this,' " Baum says. "That could create a domestic political firestorm."

Obama is also facing an increasingly skeptical Democratic Party, with several leading senators dubious about deploying additional troops.

"He has done very little to press the case for Afghanistan," says AEI's Donnelly. "But if the hated George Bush could essentially get every dime and win every legislative showdown with the Congress on the Iraq surge, the combination of Barack Obama, flanked by Gates and McChrystal, seems to be a political tsunami that even Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden has no hope of standing up to."

In the end, any decision Obama makes will be risky.

"You might have a case between what he believes in his heart is the right thing and what he believes he can do politically," Baum says. "I believe it could be his undoing either way."

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