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.
“Petraeus and McChrystal have put Obama in a trick bag,” says Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a former top aide to Secretary of State Colin Powell. “We had this happen one time before, with Douglas MacArthur” — the right-wing general who was fired after he defied President Truman over the Korean War in 1951.
It isn’t clear how far McChrystal and his boss, Petraeus, are willing to go. There have been rumors around the Pentagon that McChrystal might quit if Obama doesn’t give him what he wants — a move that would fuel Republican criticism of Obama. “He’ll be a good soldier, but he will only go so far,” a senior U.S. military officer in Kabul told reporters.
For his part, Obama moved quickly to handle the insurrection. One day after McChrystal’s defiant London speech, the president unexpectedly summoned the general to a one-on-one meeting aboard an idling Air Force One in Copenhagen. No details of the discussion were released, but two days later Jim Jones, the retired Marine general who now serves as Obama’s national-security adviser, publicly rebuked McChrystal, declaring that it is “better for military advice to come up through the chain of command.”
The struggle between the White House and the Pentagon is an important test of whether the president can take command in a political storm that could tear his administration apart. Obama himself is partly to blame for the position he finds himself in. During the presidential campaign last year, Obama praised the Afghan conflict as “the right war,” in contrast to the bungled and unnecessary invasion of Iraq. Once in office, he ordered 21,000 additional troops to Kabul, painting the war as vital to America’s national security. “If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban or allows Al Qaeda to go unchallenged,” the president declared, “that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” He also fired the commanding general in Afghanistan, David McKiernan, and replaced him with McChrystal, a close Petraeus ally and an advocate of the doctrine of counterinsurgency.
When it comes to COIN, as it’s known in military jargon, Petraeus literally wrote the book: the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which has become the bible for proponents of COIN. In its essence, counterinsurgency demands an extremely troop-intensive, village-by-village effort to win hearts and minds among the population of an occupied country, supported by a lethal killing machine and an expensive “clear, hold and build” program to eliminate the enemy from an area and consolidate those gains. Within the military, COIN has developed a cult following. “It has become almost a religion for some people,” says Paul Pillar, a former top intelligence official with wide expertise in terrorism and the Middle East.
Supporters of Petraeus and McChrystal acknowledge that applying COIN to Afghanistan means a heavy U.S. commitment to war, in both blood and treasure. Even if Obama dispatches 40,000 additional troops, on top of the 68,000 Americans already committed, we won’t even know if it’s working for at least a year. “That is something that will certainly take 12 to 18 months to assess,” said Kim Kagan, the president of the Institute for the Study of War, who helped write McChrystal’s request for more troops. Bruce Riedel, a COIN advocate and veteran CIA officer who led Obama’s review of the war last March, is even more blunt. “Anyone who thinks that in 12 to 18 months we’re going to be anywhere close to victory,” he said, “is living in a fantasyland.”
In addition, the doctrine of counterinsurgency virtually assures long-running military campaigns in other hot spots, even as we’re engaged in combat and rebuilding operations in Afghanistan. “We’re going to be involved in this type of activity in a number of countries for the next 15 to 20 years,” said Lt. Gen. David Barno, a COIN advocate who served as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
So far, though, COIN hasn’t exactly delivered on its promises. Despite the addition of 21,000 troops in March, the Taliban have continued to make gains across Afghanistan, establishing control or significantly disrupting at least 40 percent of the country. According to McChrystal’s own report, Taliban leaders “appoint shadow governors for most provinces,” set up courts, levy taxes, conscript fighters and boast about providing “security against a corrupt government.” What’s more, U.S. casualties have skyrocketed: In the four months since McChrystal took over, 165 Americans have died in Afghanistan — nearly one-fifth of those killed during the entire war.
By late summer, some in the Obama administration began to have doubts about the efficacy of McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy — doubts that greatly increased in the wake of Afghanistan’s disastrous presidential election in August. Hamid Karzai, Washington’s hand-picked president, was accused of widespread fraud, including ballot-box stuffing and “ghost” polling stations. Without a credible Afghan government, COIN can’t succeed, since its core idea is to build support for the Afghan government.
Even before the election fiasco, Obama had sent Jones, his national-security adviser, to Kabul to deliver a message to his military commander: The White House wouldn’t look favorably on sending more soldiers to Afghanistan. If the Pentagon asked for more troops, Jones told McChrystal’s top generals, the president would have “a Whisky Tango Foxtrot moment” — that is, What the fuck? According to The Washington Post, which reported the encounter, the generals present “seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get.”
Not long after the Afghan elections, Obama began a top-to-bottom strategy review of the war. Among those who started to question the basic assumptions of McChrystal and his COIN allies were Jones, many of his colleagues on the National Security Council, and Vice President Biden. By contrast, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remained remarkably quiet during the assessment, seeming to defer to the White House when it came to challenging the Pentagon brass.
The issue has presented the most difficult political decision of Obama’s presidency thus far. The White House knew that if Obama were to “fully resource” the military campaign, he would be going to war without his own political base, which has turned strongly against the Afghan war. For the first time since 2001, according to polls, a majority of Americans believe that the war in Afghanistan is “not worth fighting.” Fifty-seven percent of independents and nearly three-quarters of Democrats oppose the war — and overall, only 26 percent of Americans support the idea of adding more troops. Indeed, if Obama were to escalate the war, his only allies would be the Pentagon, Congressional Republicans, an ultraconservative think tank called the Foreign Policy Initiative, whose supporters include Karl Rove, Sarah Palin and a passel of neoconservatives and former aides to George W. Bush.
On the other hand, rejecting McChrystal’s demands for more troops would make Obama vulnerable to GOP accusations that he was embracing defeat, and give congressional Republicans another angle of attack during midterm elections next year. Even worse, the administration has to take into account the possibility of a terrorist attack, which would allow the GOP to put the blame on the White House. “All it would take is one terrorist attack, vaguely linked to Afghanistan, for the military and his opponents to pounce all over him,” says Pillar.
Within the administration, Biden has emerged as the leading opponent of McChrystal’s approach to never-ending war. “He’s proposing that we stop doing large-scale counterinsurgency, that we rely on drones, U.S. Special Forces and other tools to combat Al Qaeda,” says Stephen Biddle, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who served on McChrystal’s advisory team. Biden’s view, which has support among a significant number of officials and analysts in and out of government, is that rather than trying to defeat the Taliban, the United States ought to focus on targeting Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that want to strike at American targets.
That Biden took the lead, says one former national-security official, may be a sign that he has the president’s support. “Biden is playing a very inside game,” says the official. “He’s in every meeting.” In early October, the vice president held a private session to discuss war strategy with two members of the administration who are considered among the more hawkish members of Obama’s team: Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, the State Department’s special adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan. In addition, Biden and Obama, both former senators, are said to be relying on the counsel of a pair of relatively dovish former colleagues, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has recently made comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam. Also weighing in, apparently to advise against sending more troops, has been Colin Powell, who met quietly with Obama in mid-September.
Supporters of Biden’s view argue that adding more troops would actually make the problem worse, not better, because the Taliban draw support from the fiercely nationalist Pashtun ethnic group in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who will mobilize to resist a long-term occupation. “The real fact is, the more people we put in, the more opposition there will be,” says Selig Harrison, a longtime observer of Afghanistan at the Center for International Policy, a think tank formed in the wake of the Vietnam War by former diplomats and peace activists. The only exit strategy that might work, say Harrison and others, is dramatically reducing the U.S. military role in Afghanistan, shifting the focus from the Taliban to Al Qaeda, and stepping up political and diplomatic efforts. Such an initiative would also require an intensive push to secure support from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — which maintain links to the Taliban — as well as Iran, Russia, India and China.
“There’s only one mission there that we can accomplish,” says Michael Scheuer, who led the CIA’s anti-Osama bin Laden unit for years. “To go into Afghanistan, kill Al Qaeda, do as much damage to the Taliban as possible and leave.”
Opponents of that approach insist that it would allow Al Qaeda to re-establish a safe haven in Afghanistan and resume plotting attacks. But many terrorism experts point out that Al Qaeda doesn’t need Afghanistan as a base of operations, since it can plan actions from Pakistan or, for that matter, from a mosque in London or Hamburg. “We deal with Al Qaeda in every country in the world without invading the country,” says Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat who serves on both the Senate foreign-relations and intelligence committees. “We deal with them in Indonesia, the Philippines, Yemen, Somalia, in European countries, in our own country, with various means that range from law enforcement to military action to other kinds of actions.”
Feingold, who has proposed setting a flexible timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, says that the administration must listen to advisers like Biden who favor shifting course in Afghanistan. “If they do not, if they refuse to, then we in Congress have to start proposing our own timetables, just as we did when we were stonewalled by the Bush administration,” Feingold says. “I’m prepared to take whatever steps I need to, in consultation with other members of Congress, to make those proposals if necessary.”
Other Democrats have also expressed doubts about appropriating more money for the conflict. Monthly spending on the war is rising rapidly — from $2 billion in October 2008 to $6.7 billion in June 2009 — and Obama has requested a total of $65 billion for 2010, even without another troop surge. “I don’t think there is a great deal of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan in the country or in Congress,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has declared his preference for sending trainers to Afghanistan to build that country’s armed forces, instead of U.S. combat troops. And Rep. Jim McGovern recently got 138 votes for an amendment that would have required the administration to declare its exit strategy. “The further we get sucked into this war, the harder it will be to get out of it,” McGovern says. “What the hell is the objective? Tell me how this has a happy ending. Tell me how we win this. How do we measure success?”
Given the political pressure from both sides, Obama appears to favor sidestepping the issue. At a meeting with congressional leaders from both parties at the White House on October 6th, the president said he won’t significantly reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan, as many Democrats had hoped — but he also seemed unlikely to endorse the major troop buildup proposed by McChrystal. While that approach may quell the Pentagon’s insurrection for now, it only prolongs the conflict in Afghanistan, postponing what many see as an inevitable withdrawal. Wilkerson, the former aide to Colin Powell, hopes Obama will follow the example of President Kennedy, who faced down his generals during the Cuban Missile Crisis. “It’s going to take John Kennedy-type courage to turn to his Curtis LeMay and say, ‘No, we’re not going to bomb Cuba,'” Wilkerson says. “It took a lot of courage on Kennedy’s part to defy the Pentagon, defy the military — and do the right thing.”
This article originally appeared in RS 1090 from October 29, 2009. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via All Access, Rolling Stone’s premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full issue. Not a member? Click here to learn more about All Access.