In early October, as President Obama huddled with top administration officials in the White House situation room to rethink America's failing strategy in Afghanistan, the Pentagon and top military brass were trying to make the president an offer he couldn't refuse. They wanted the president to escalate the war — go all in by committing 40,000 more troops and another trillion dollars to a Vietnam-like quagmire — or face a full-scale mutiny by his generals.
Obama knew that if he rebuffed the military's pressure, several senior officers — including Gen. David Petraeus, the ambitious head of U.S. Central Command, who is rumored to be eyeing a presidential bid of his own in 2012 — could break ranks and join forces with hawks in the Republican Party. GOP leaders and conservative media outlets wasted no time in warning Obama that if he refused to back the troop escalation being demanded by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander overseeing the eight-year-old war, he'd be putting U.S. soldiers' lives at risk and inviting Al Qaeda to launch new assaults on the homeland. The president, it seems, is battling two insurgencies: one in Afghanistan and one cooked up by his own generals.
"I don't understand why the military is putting so much pressure on the White House now over Afghanistan," says a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. "Unless it has something to do with the presidential ambitions of a certain Centcom commander."
The military's campaign to force Obama's hand started in earnest in September, when the Commander's Initial Assessment of the war — a highly classified report prepared by McChrystal — was leaked to The Washington Post. According to insiders, the leak was coordinated by someone close to Petraeus, McChrystal's boss and ally. Speculation has centered on Gen. Jack Keane, a retired Army vice chief of staff and Petraeus confidant, who helped convince George W. Bush to get behind the "surge" in Iraq. In the report, McChrystal paints a dire picture of the American effort in Afghanistan, concluding that a massive increase in troop levels is the only way to prevent a humiliating failure.
On Capitol Hill, hawkish GOP congressmen seized the opening to turn up the heat on Obama by demanding that he allow McChrystal and Petraeus to come to Washington to testify at high-profile hearings to ask for more troops. "It is time to listen to our commanders on the ground, not the ever-changing political winds whispering defeat in Washington," declared Sen. Kit Bond, a Republican from Missouri. Attempting to usurp Obama's authority as commander in chief, Sen. John McCain introduced an amendment to compel the two generals to come before Congress, but the measure was voted down by the Democratic majority.
As the pressure from the military and the right built, McChrystal went on 60 Minutes to complain that he had only talked to Obama once since his appointment in June. Then, upping the ante, the general flew to London for a speech, where he was asked if de- escalating the war, along the lines reportedly suggested by Vice President Joe Biden, might work. "The short answer is: no," said McChrystal, dismissing the idea as "shortsighted." His comment — which bluntly defied the American tradition that a military officer's job is to carry out policy, not make it — shocked political observers in Washington and reportedly angered the White House.
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