Of Afghanistan, the Military, the Obama Administration, and Policy Choices

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on October 20, 2010


Some excellent pushback from Paul Miller regarding the contention that the military sought to constrain the Obama Administration’s range of policy choices in Afghanistan:

First, that doesn’t seem to be an accurate reflection of events. The military did in fact provide the administration with several options, according to Woodward: the 40,000 option; an 85,000 fully-resourced counterinsurgency campaign; and, after the administration’s pushback, the deployment of 20,000 troops for a scaled-down mission. The president, and apparently everyone else, simply disregarded the 85,000 option as “unrealistic.” But it was an actual option that the military presented and was only perceived as unrealistic because the administration simply wouldn’t consider it (even though no one seemed to dispute that the 85,000 would have the best chance of defeating the Taliban).

Second, and more importantly, it seems the administration was trying to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to the military. The president asked the military for its options but then disliked what it recommended. The president reportedly wanted “choices that would limit U.S. involvement and provide a way out,” according to Woodward, while still protecting U.S. security interests in the region. The military responded (rightly, in my view) that the goals of limiting U.S. involvement, on the one hand, and protecting U.S. interests, on the other, were at odds with each other. The president’s frustration is understandable, but it is not the military’s fault. He can’t ask the military for its best advice, and then ask it to give different advice when he doesn’t like what they give him. That comes close to politicizing the military. The military brass was right to try to find creative solutions to meet the president’s goals while not compromising their professional judgment.

I suspect this is what Col. John Tien, the senior director for Afghanistan and Pakistan (with whom I worked for almost two years), meant when he reportedly told the president, “I don’t see how you can defy your military chain here… because if you tell McChrystal ‘I got your assessment, got your resource constructs, but I’ve chosen to do something else,’ you’re going to probably have to replace him.” He was saying, as tactfully as a colonel can say to the commander-in-chief, that the president has the authority to disregard the military’s advice, but if he simply wants to hear different advice, he needs different people.

It’s nice to see that Miller is working to prevent history from being re-written here. Would that more people follow his example.

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