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What's Obama's Afghan Plan?

By Dan Froomkin
1:15 PM ET, 05/12/2009


U.S. soldiers (including one still in boxer shorts) come under fire from the Taliban yesterday in northeastern Afghanistan. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

President Obama still doesn't have an exit strategy for Afghanistan. The benchmarks he promised over six weeks ago are still anyone's guess.

But yesterday he certainly took some decisive action: He fired his top general there -- right in the middle of a war.

You could see this as a good sign, I guess -- as a evidence of a healthy recognition by Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates that more of the just same wasn't going to cut it in Afghanistan.

But -- especially if you consider the aforementioned lack of an exit strategy and benchmarks -- you might also see this as an indication that Obama has committed himself to a mission in Afghanistan that isn't actually achievable.

You might see evidence that Obama's decision in February to send even more troops into the region hadn't been fully thought out.

Gates announced yesterday that he had decided to replace Gen. David D. McKiernan after less than a year as the top general in Afghanistan and replace him with Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, a veteran Special Operations commander, counterinsurgency expert, and protege of U.S. Central Command commander and alleged wunderkind Gen. David H. Petraeus. Gates said McChrystal will bring "new leadership" and "fresh thinking" to the war against the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan.

But as Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "In a startling admission, Gates told a news conference he didn't know what new strategy and tactics would be adopted with the arrival of the new U.S. troops in the south, where violence is at the highest levels since the 2001 U.S.-led intervention.

"'The challenge that we give the new leadership (is) how do we do better? What ideas do you have? What fresh thinking do you have? Are there different ways of accomplishing our goals? How can we be more effective?' said Gates, who recently returned from Afghanistan.

"'In some ways we are learning as we go,' added Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said he hoped that McKiernan's successor, McChrystal, would 'make some recommendations about how to move forward as rapidly as possible.'"

So, does that fill you with confidence?

Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post that "senior officials said McKiernan's leadership was not bold or nimble enough to reenergize a campaign in which U.S. and other NATO troops had reached a stalemate against Taliban insurgents in some parts of Afghanistan."

She also notes: "Incidents in which U.S. forces caused high numbers of civilian casualties in Afghanistan had emerged as a major source of discomfort for Gates and Mullen during McKiernan's tenure, but officials said that was not the reason for his removal. 'McKiernan got it, and he's been much better about responding,' a senior military official said. Gates noted yesterday that civilian deaths in Afghanistan had declined 40 percent since January compared with the same period last year."

Initially, I was thinking maybe this was Obama's delayed response to the U.S. airstrikes that resulted in a tragic mass killing last week. But apparently the timing is off.

And what about the new guy? Well, Fred Kaplan writes for Slate that McChrystal "was commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, a highly secretive operation that hunted down and killed key jihadist fighters, including, most sensationally, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.

"Last fall, Bob Woodward reported in the Washington Post that JSOC played a crucial, unsung role in the tactical success of the Iraqi 'surge.' Using techniques of what McChrystal called 'collaborative warfare,' JSOC combined intelligence intercepts with quick, precision strikes to 'eliminate' large numbers of key insurgent leaders."

And yet, Kaplan writes: "This appointment will not be without controversy. McChrystal's command also provided the personnel for Task Force 6-26, an elite unit of 1,000 special-ops forces that engaged in harsh interrogation of detainees in Camp Nama as far back as 2003. The interrogations were so harsh that five Army officers were convicted on charges of abuse. (McChrystal himself was not implicated in the excesses, but the unit's slogan, which set the tone for its practices, was 'If you don't make them bleed, they can't prosecute for it.')"

And M.J. Stephey writes for Time that McChrystal was "[s]ingled out in a March 2007 report by the Pentagon inspector general for his role in the death of ex-NFL star and U.S. soldier Pat Tillman. Though the two-year investigation cleared McChrystal of any official wrongdoing, it faulted him for failing to immediately notify Tillman's family of the military's suspicions that Tillman's death was the result of friendly fire."

Meanwhile, in a reminder of the horrors of modern warfare, Laura King writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Turbaned elders and weather-beaten farmers trekked to this provincial capital today to accept reparation payments from a government commission that concluded 140 civilians were killed in a fierce battle last week between Taliban fighters and coalition troops.

"If the figure arrived at by the commission is correct, it would make last week's fatalities in rural Farah province the worst single episode of civilian casualties since the U.S.-led invasion more than seven years ago."

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