At Thursday’s Pentagon press conference, neither Defense Secretary Robert Gates nor Joint Chiefs chair Adm. Mike Mullen would say what many hoped: how many troops Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s plan recommends for the way forward in Afghanistan. They said no decision on troop levels has been made. In fact, it was a news conference rather devoid of news, as neither Gates nor Mullen would say what was in McChrystal’s strategic review.
So why the press conference? I think the Obama administration’s top military advisers wanted to send a clear message: any request for more troops will follow the proper chain of command; lobbying behind the scenes for more, or fewer, troops will not be tolerated.
As Tom Ricks reported in his excellent book on the 2007 surge in Iraq, The Gamble, the Bush administration doubled down there only after a six month lobbying campaign conducted largely outside military channels by retired Army general Jack Keane. The Joint Chiefs, as well as most senior military leaders, were against the surge; their advice was ignored. “In the fall of 2006, Jack Keane effectively became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stepping in to redirect U.S. strategy… It was an unprecedented and astonishing development for a retired general to drive policy making and indeed bypass the entire chain of command in remaking war strategy,” Ricks writes.
Not this war. Here was Gates Thursday: “[McChrystal’s] recommendations or alternative courses of action would follow the chain of command. They will go to General Petraeus, as the commander of Central Command, who will offer his view. That will then be forwarded to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the chairman. And they will evaluate it and add their point of view. And I will then add mine and provide that to the president.”
And Mullen: “The chiefs and I have already met twice in the tank this week to discuss it, and we're planning at least one more session later on… Our job -- and it's one we take very seriously -- is to provide the secretary and the president our best military advice. And we're going to do that with a clear eye not only on the needs in Afghanistan but also the needs of the force in general and on our other security commitments around the globe.”
U.S. troop levels sit at around 62,000 in Afghanistan. There is an outstanding request for an additional brigade from former Afghan commander Gen. David McKiernan. Gates said at a press conference in May that adding the additional brigade would be a “hard sell,” and talked of a “tipping point” where the American footprint became counterproductive to the mission. On Thursday, Gates sounded more amenable to more boots on the ground.
Senator John McCain has already weighed in, saying last month that troop numbers should be significantly increased and voicing concerns that McChrystal will be pressured to request a smaller number than what he views as an optimal force level. From press reports, there is an ongoing internal debate in the White House about the deepening U.S. commitment to Afghanistan and worries over lack of any kind of exit strategy.
Afghanistan has long been under-resourced, as Mullen said yesterday. Digging out of that hole will take time and a larger force. Anthony Cordesman, who served on McChrystal’s advisory group, wrote in an editorial this week that most of his fellow advisers believed three to eight more brigades are needed. That eight number sounds awfully high; the infrastructure doesn’t exist to handle that many more combat units and the logistical system probably couldn’t support 40,000 more troops on top of the 21,000 already dispatched by Obama.
Whether or not McChrystal asks for more troops, the message from the nation’s top military leaders was clear, the chain of command will be respected this time around. As Gates said, decisions on troop levels will be made as part of a “systematic, deliberative process designed to make sure the president receives the best military information and advice on the way ahead in Afghanistan.”