Pete Souza/AP/The White House
President Obama holds a meeting on Afghanistan in the Situation Room of the White House on Nov. 23 — one of 10 war council sessions with senior advisers as he contemplated a strategy shift in the war.
President Obama holds a meeting on Afghanistan in the Situation Room of the White House on Nov. 23 — one of 10 war council sessions with senior advisers as he contemplated a strategy shift in the war. Pete Souza/AP/The White House
President Obama has ordered 30,000 more troops into battle in Afghanistan. The escalation is meant to be as rapid as possible, but the process that brought the president to this point wasn't rapid at all.
It was lengthy and deliberate — and it had many twists and turns.
Obama's willingness to escalate the war in Afghanistan was no secret. In fact, it was his policy and his preference since before he took office. During the campaign, he was one of many Democrats who saw Afghanistan as the "good war," while the war in Iraq was seen as a waste of blood and treasure. On the campaign trail, Obama went even further, excoriating President Bush for taking his eye off the ball.
"And that is why, as president, I will make the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war we have to win," Obama said as a candidate.
For some Democrats, supporting the fight in Afghanistan was a way to deflect the old soft-on-national-security charge often leveled against their party. But unlike other Democrats, Obama never abandoned his belief that Afghanistan was the necessary war. Two months after he took office, the president announced a comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida.
"That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: We will defeat you," Obama said in March.
In that speech, the president also said he was sending 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan. But even then his general wanted more.
On a visit to Afghanistan in June, National Security Adviser James Jones warned the commanders not to ask for more troops so soon. If they did, Jones said, using a salty abbreviation, the president would have a "whiskey tango foxtrot" moment — as in WTF.
But by then, Obama had already asked his new commanding general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, to assess the war effort.
A New General For A Long War
Defense Secretary Robert Gates picked McChrystal because he was unhappy with the way things were going in Afghanistan. Security was deteriorating. The commander there had asked for more troops but had given little sense of how they would be used.
So Gates, together with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, handed the mission to McChrystal and Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez.
Gates said McChrystal and Rodriguez "will provide the kind of new leadership and fresh thinking" that is necessary.
McChrystal provided that fresh thinking in late summer. His review came in a classified assessment to the White House. The document, leaked to the news media, warned that the war could be lost without more U.S. forces.
McChrystal asked for those forces — as many as 80,000 more troops, and as few as 12,000. After his plans and troop request landed at the White House, McChrystal heard nothing for weeks.
That's because there was turmoil in Washington. Democrats balked. The Obama administration seriously considered sending no new troops at all. It also looked at an idea pushed by Vice President Joe Biden: Limit American troops in Afghanistan and use drone aircraft to kill al-Qaida in Pakistan.
In early October, McChrystal was asked in London whether that plan made sense.
"The short glib answer is no, you have to navigate from where you are, not from where you wish you were," he said. "A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a short-sighted strategy."
That comment got McChrystal into trouble inside the White House.
A day later, McChrystal was summoned while Obama was on a European trip. They met aboard Air Force One in Copenhagen. Some thought it was a dressing-down. But the president backed his general and later told lawmakers, "He's my hand-picked guy."
McChrystal stopped speaking publicly. But his boss didn't. Mullen told Congress that he endorsed McChrystal's recommendations.
"I do believe that having heard his views and having great confidence in his leadership, a properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces," Mullen said.
The military brass was lining up in favor of more forces. Some in the White House were feeling boxed in. The debate was on.
Deliberation And Debate At The White House
At the White House, the decision-making process was lengthy and deliberate. The president's war council met 10 times over three months. There were leaks, which infuriated Gates, particularly when it was publicly revealed that Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and a former Army general, opposed the troop buildup.
The president was not pleased either, as he told CBS News.
"I think I'm probably angrier than Bob Gates about it. Partly, partly because, you know, we have these deliberations in the Situation Room for a reason. Because we are making decisions that are life and death," Obama said.
In some cases, White House officials publicly questioned the assumptions behind McChrystal's recommendation. In doing so, they were giving voice to the views of many Democrats in Congress who opposed any escalation. And they were sending an important political message that the president wouldn't just rubber-stamp the general's request.
Meanwhile, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel expressed doubts — doubts that the president shared — about the legitimacy of Afghan President Hamid Karzai .
"The question is, do you have a credible partner that could then fill that space that we're asking the American troops to create?" Emanuel said.
In the end, the president decided he had no choice but to work with Karzai, despite marred presidential elections in August and charges of corruption inside Karzai's administration.
In the end, by settling on the number of troops Gates had recommended in October, Obama was siding with the Pentagon and rejecting the view of his vice president, who had favored a more targeted strategy.
"I was skeptical of taking our eye off the ball. The ball is al-Qaida. That's the reason we're there," Biden told NBC. "They are in Pakistan. The Taliban leadership is in Pakistan. And I wanted to make sure that the focus stayed on those two elements of our concern and didn't sort of morph into a nation-building exercise that would tie us down for 10 years."
But in the end, the president's team of rivals was on board. His strategy was an Obama-style balance — a bigger footprint than the vice president and others wanted, the Taliban would be degraded not destroyed, there would be no nation-building, and there would be a date to begin a drawdown of troops.
Throughout it all, Republicans complained about how long it took the president to decide. Former Vice President Dick Cheney accused Obama of "dithering."
In his speech Tuesday night at West Point, Obama defended the process.
"Now, let me be clear: There has never been an option before me that called for troop deployments before 2010, so there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war during this review period. Instead, the review has allowed me to ask the hard questions and to explore all the different options," Obama said.
After all the hard questions were asked and all the premises were challenged, the president called his team into the Oval Office at 5 p.m. Sunday and told them what he had decided: a swifter ramp-up of troop strength — what the president called moving the bell curve to the left — in hopes of quickly improving the Afghans' ability to take over security responsibilities. He had put his own stamp on McChrystal's request. In the Oval Office, the president issued the order to implement his strategy immediately.
So now the mission was back in the hands of the generals. Even as the president spoke to the nation from West Point, the Marines had begun moving equipment by sea to Afghanistan.
McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of all U.S. forces in the region, had made the case in those White House meetings: The U.S. must hit the Taliban hard, and hit them fast.
At West Point, it was clear the president had been persuaded.
"We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future," Obama said.
That's the only way U.S. troops can leave.
McChrystal said it would take 400,000 Afghan troops to secure their country. The White House and Pentagon doubt it's possible to train and field that many.
So having conducted a disciplined debate for months, the president now finds that his strategy depends on forces he cannot control: Afghanistan's government and its military.