WASHINGTON, Sept. 21, 2009 -- The leak of a secret assessment by the top military commander in Afghanistan laying out the need for more troops there has raised the question of whether President Obama is at odds with the Pentagon over the direction of the war.
The report by Gen. Stanley McChrystal says that more troops are urgently needed in Afghanistan to prevent "mission failure," while Obama has repeatedly said he will not rush into a decision on whether to increase the U.S. military presence there until after he conducts a review of his administration's strategy for the region.
A copy of McChrystal's 66-page assessment was obtained by the Washington Post and posted on its Web site today with some parts removed at the Pentagon's request for security reasons.
The assessment looked at the security situation in Afghanistan and a request for an increase in troops there was expected to come in a separate request.
It makes the case that the way to turn around the Taliban's momentum in Afghanistan is to pursue a classic counterinsurgency campaign that protects civilian populations.
Pursuing such strategy would require more troops than the 68,000 slated to be in Afghanistan by year's end. That number will already be double the number of troops in Afghanistan last year and was made possible by Obama's decision in February to deploy 21,000 additional troops to stabilize the security situation.
Obama told George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week" that he agreed to send those additional troops even before the strategy review for Afghanistan and Pakistan was completed because he thought it was important to provide security for the upcoming Afghan elections.
In that same interview, he characterized the strategy in Afghanistan under the Bush administration as having developed into "mission creep where we're just there and we start taking on a whole bunch of different missions. I wanted to narrow it."
Obama: Troop Increases in Afghanistan Await Strategy Review
When unveiled in March, the Obama administration's strategy outlined a regional approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the goal of which was "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida" in those countries.
But six months later, Obama's comments in a series of network Sunday talk shows suggest that the regional strategy is under review and that any additional request for troops from McChrystal would have to await the conclusions of that review.
"I just want to make sure that everybody understands that you don't make decisions about resources before you have the strategy ready," he told ABC's "This Week".
McChrystal's 60-day assessment concluded that the security situation in Afghanistan has continued to deteriorate, despite the presence of those additional troops already ordered by Obama.
The assessment says more troops will be needed in order to pursue a successful counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and that a failure to reverse "insurgent momentum" in the short term risks the possibility that "defeating the insurgency is no longer possible." He added, "Resources will not win this war, but under-resourcing could lose it."
In his ABC interview, Obama included himself among the "skeptical audience" that needs to be shown that "by sending young men and women into harm's way, we are defeating al Qaeda."
Obama has always characterized the fight in Afghanistan as a war of necessity and now that McChrystal has laid out the plan for how to win there, the president faces a crucial decision. Does he accept McChrystal's analysis that more troops are needed or does he change the mission in Afghanistan?
It can be argued that the current mission as laid out by the Obama administration can be carried out in different ways, but if the recommendation is more troops to employ a counterinsurgency operation, the administration faces a tough balancing act of fulfilling a commander's request while considering ebbing public support for the war.
Questions Arise Over Administration Strategy After Assessment Goes Public
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell characterizes McChrystal's assessment as a "pre-decisional document" intended to provide the basis for the Obama national security team's discussions "about where we are now in Afghanistan and how to best to get to where we want to be."
Asked last week why the classified document had not been made public, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, "The president deserves the right to absorb the assessment himself and have his questions ... answered before it's delivered" to a wider audience.
Now that the document is in the public record, the questions arise of how much longer will it take for the administration to decide whether more troops will be headed to Afghanistan and if the decision is not to send more troops, whether there might there be a new mission in Afghanistan.