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What's Obama's Afghan Plan?


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."

By Dan Froomkin  |  May 12, 2009; 1:15 PM ET
Categories:  Afghanistan  
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Comments

Great. A torturing General who covered up Pat Tillman's death. Did we re-elect George Bush last November? And they don't even have a strategy! These guys are looking more and more incompetent every day, and this is coming from an initial Obama supporter. Obama needs to get rid of Gates--when we elected Obama, we did not expect him to keep the Bush administration in place.
And now, from we read an amazing column from Glenn Greenwald. Obama is threatening the British government: if they don't stop their court from releasing information about Binyam Mohammed's torture (hint: they used a scapel on his genitals), the Obama administration will withhold intelligence-sharing with the British government.
Obama is looking more and more like Bush and Cheney every day. "Change," my a*s.

Posted by: iacitizen | May 12, 2009 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, Pres. Obama has fallen for the Bush/Cheney Rope-a-Dope in Afghanistan.

Posted by: patriot76 | May 12, 2009 1:44 PM | Report abuse

We have to keep fighting in Afganistan. We just can't lay off all those weapons workers just now. Besides, the more we kill, the bigger the profit. And profit is the point of war. USA! USA! USA!

Posted by: davidbn27 | May 12, 2009 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Meet the new boss........same as the ole boss.

Posted by: affirmativeactionpresident | May 12, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

You can't present a bunch of really stupid, treasonous, corrupt sh*theads as the way to model a new government, whether you're American, or Russian, or even British.

I hope, though, at the very least they stop murdering civilans -- they not only look STUPID, they look incompetent.

Sometimes, in the real world, those things just don't work.

Maybe they need to reevaluate their thinking on how to fight a terrorist war, something above Cheney 101...

Posted by: thegreatpotatospamof2003 | May 12, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse

"Obama is looking more and more like Bush and Cheney every day"

So true, sadly. At least Bush had the excuse that he had no clue on what's going on when he was in office. Could Cheney and the rest of the neocon gang be on the way back? Or they've never left? What does it REALLY take to have some change in the US government nowadays? So many questions and so few answers.

Posted by: KT11 | May 12, 2009 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Dan:
Glad you're picking up this story too. I think the change is a good one, but changing the commander is not the same as developing a strategy.

Full comments at:
http://smartinfluence.blogspot.com/2009/05/man-plan.html

Posted by: RobinJWalker | May 12, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

I am really hoping that this awful kowtowing to the military judgement of commanders, who relish their time in the spotlight and will do anything to keep their wars going, will be over soon. He is too smart not to have realized by now that we are going nowhere in either Afghanistan or Iraq, and they can't just keep getting rid of generals who tell them we're pouring our soldiers and money into a bottomless pit. The only people benefiting are the military contractors, and apparently they have a lot of juice.
Come on, Obama. Stand up for the people of America. Not the military/industrial complex.

Posted by: shaman7214 | May 12, 2009 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Pat Tillman's death was itself a 'special op,' perhaps overseen by this very same general. What they have been trying to cover up is that Tillman was shot in the forehead from thirty feet away while he was screaming, "I'm f***ing Pat Tillman!" It seems he had been in touch with Noam Chomsky and was about to go public with the war being a giant boondoggle, so 'friendly fire' took him out. Think that request came from anywhere but the very top?

Posted by: shaman7214 | May 12, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Yes, indeed, President Bubama and Secretary of War, Robert Gates. Same as it ever was.
What's most interesting is the comments and watching those that fell for the hopenosis coming to realize that mr Obama is a complete fraud. Check out BrandObama:
http://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/05/04

Posted by: jeffreyw1 | May 12, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse

"you might also see this as an indication that Obama has committed himself to a mission in Afghanistan that isn't actually achievable."

Iraq

Afghanistan

Bailout/TARP Oversight

Hey, pick a topic. This crew is in serious trouble. And so are we.

I knew for a fact that Bush was a moron from the time he announced for president. I had hoped that we could get adults back in charge of the world. Looks like it isn't going to happen.

Posted by: mdsinc | May 12, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

Legions of experts, journalists, politicians and civilians familiar with the country have told us that a military "victory" in Afghanistan will not come. Karzai is corrupt, the poppy crop is bigger than ever, the country is essentially a medieval tribal territory. I would rather see the West pay to put technology, electricity, refrigerators, air conditioning etc into Afghanistan than more soldiers and more guns.

Posted by: gposner | May 12, 2009 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Is this Change We Can Believe In???

More $100 billion war supplementals?

More intractable wars?

More reckless deficit spending?

More cover-ups of torture?

More invocations of the state secrets privilege?

More partisan bickering and political polarization?

Well, as far as I can see -- Obama has not delivered on anything he promised on the Campaign Trail. He is trying to please everyone and is ending up pissing almost everyone off!

Posted by: winoohno | May 12, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

The Bushies, based on their own actions, are illiterate, could not understand history, and repeated history.

Zillions of years ago there was a “Great Bear” who had 15 republics, three of these republics were Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. These three former Soviet republics share their southern-most borders with Afghanistan. Iran shares the western border and Pakistan the Eastern border. China is insignificantly represented on the eastern border. This “Great Bear” invaded this primitive and mountainous Muslim country of Afghanistan with its ultra modern machines of war. Around the year 1990, the “Great Bear” lost the war to Afghanistan but not by military might The “Great Bear” went bankrupt and is no more.

In early 2000, there was a “Great Satan” with 50 states. Under the leadership of Satan reincarnated as King George, the Junior, this “Great Satan” invaded another primitive Muslim country, Iraq, because Saddam Hussein used an image of his poor Daddy, George Bush, the Senior, as a natural target in his urinal to aim at when he took a leak. Gotta avenge daddy’s face. Iraq also had massive oil reserves. King George bankrupted the Great Satan, both morally and financially, just before he left office in 2009.

If we use the current historical events in the region to predict the future of the US, the future is not very bright. The Afghans and Iraqis know all they have to do to stay the course. The money spigots, now wide-open, will continue to empty the “money-bin” until they it is dry. Total bankruptcy will probably be followed by hyperinflation. This brings us up to the situation in 1929.

Money is a very powerful weapon of war, and one does not have to have money to use it to its full advantage.

He who cannot read history and who doesn't understand history repeats history.

Posted by: MrZ2 | May 12, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Froomkin.

You expect the President to come up with a PERFECT PLAN to get us out of the Bushy mess in Afghanistan within the first 120 days of his being in office, right?

Your column sucks. All you do is recite other air head writers opinions. None of you morons are able to come up with 1 (one) useful idea.

So go, stuff it

Posted by: mackiejw | May 12, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

The Taliban is the group directly responsible for giving aid and comfort to the 9/11 terrorists in the days and weeks after the attack. Thanks to years of inattention by the Bush administration, the Taliban is now engaged in an attempt to take over two nations bordering nations, one of which is a nuclear power. I'm glad Obama is pragmatic and intelligent enough to understand that, unlike the Iraqi fiasco, the war against the Taliban is a war that needs to be fought.

Posted by: sonny2 | May 12, 2009 4:49 PM | Report abuse

What do you expect from a liberal? They don't know how to plan. For example, BO said he'd close Guantanamo Bay before he even thought of a plan.

Posted by: leeh11281 | May 12, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

It's difficult to set a strategy when you don't know yet what your strategic goals are - Is this something the War College has forgotten to teach the cadets?
Caveat: a strategic goal is something that your analysts say is achievable with a high degree of probability at a reasonable cost - and costs include all costs - political, economic, diplomatic.
i recommend hiring on someone skilled at assessing probabilities - shouldn't there be Las Vegas bookmakers available in this rough economic time?

Posted by: ktktk | May 12, 2009 5:41 PM | Report abuse

It's a nation of 172,000,000 people roughly about the size of Texas and Wyoming combined. Apparently, they 'own' about 100 nukes. So far, the strategy, was a quick kick in the pants to its leader a few days ago. It's an extremely densely populated region where some of its citizens are probably being 'prevented' from joining their fellow compatriots, as refugees, to a safer place. Large amounts of civilian deaths can't continue.... What strategy?

Posted by: deepthroat21 | May 12, 2009 6:41 PM | Report abuse

The problem with Afghanistan and Pakistan right now (I like the term Afpak--reminds me a little of Aflac), is the same problem as about 3,000 years ago, and every time someone's tried to conquer them ever since. The territory is so mountainous and fragmented that it's nearly impossible to establish unified political control. Too much can happen, and local actors can accomplish too much out of contact with the capital, for a central government to have constant influence everywhere. (There's a reason why the Roman empire was defined by its roads.)

What does this mean for us now? A grim situation, unfortunately. It means probably reducing our strategic goals to local spheres, and not even trying to establish military or political control everywhere. As for Pakistan, with its nukes, it means working with the government to safeguard those, at the very least.

Posted by: whizbang9a | May 12, 2009 6:59 PM | Report abuse

Although I have never believed that Obama has the background to be qualified to be a U.S. President, I am very glad that he has not adopted the very foolish policy of 'cut and run.'
This country must follow through on what we start. Promises have been made to our allies. Broken promises lead to anarchy.

Posted by: primegrop | May 12, 2009 8:28 PM | Report abuse

It was so much easier to get into this than it ever will be to get out. If Obama's plans don't inspire us with confidence, which they pretty much don't, we might want to remember that the situation had almost eight years to get this bad and drift this bar.

Posted by: jpk1 | May 12, 2009 8:36 PM | Report abuse

While the US fights the Taliban with guns and bullets I hope that it spends as much time and effort improving the lot of ordinary people.

If suffering citizens see that the US is helping them in their every day lives they will be appreciative and they will develop a sense of allegiance to the US.

The US will not win in Afghanistan if and while ordinary people feel abused, betrayed and forgotten.

Posted by: robertjames1 | May 13, 2009 1:15 AM | Report abuse

While it is certainly frustrating that Obama doesn't have an exit strategy from Afghanistan (yet); he's also been in office for just under four months and has had a few other pressing (like the economic and financial meltdown) issues to contend with, and he wasn't the one to get us into the mess (and divert massive levels of troops into Iraq).
He announced during the campaign that he would commit greater attention and troop levels to Afghanistan and with the changing of the guard it appears he's started to make some needed changes. He still has a way to go in terms of both his learning curve as well as long-term policy. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is THE front line against Al Qaida.
It's not only Al Qaida, but also Pakistan and Asia with its militant Islamic jihadi organizations. It's a powder keg which requires constant vigilance. I'm also not sure how quickly NATO and the US can leave the region.
Unlike Iraq, there's not even a sliver of a functioning central government in Afghanistan. War Lords and other regional leaders need to be brought under control. Once they're on board--must effectively through a well thought out and operationalized counter-insurgency campaign--maybe the country/region can be brought into the 21st century, the drug trafficking (mostly opium) can be eradicated, the Afghans can govern themselves ... maybe, even the rest of region will also be stable (viz. Pakistan). Then, the western (military) powers can arrange to exit. Until then, and I'm not sanguine it'll happen soon, we're stuck there; probably for at least the rest of Obama term of office (2012).

Posted by: dbear1 | May 13, 2009 7:33 AM | Report abuse

The "plan" is the same as in Vietnam - keep sending in more troops, expanding the air war, ad infinitum. I don't recall that Obama promised an exit strategy in his campaign, rather he promised to send in more troops and "win".

Posted by: skeptonomist | May 13, 2009 9:36 AM | Report abuse

The Post (Ann Scott Tyson link, above) had an interesting tidbit yesterday on the McKiernan sacking. Apparently, the general was cautious about standing up local militias to defend against the Taliban, an experiment that has recently begun in Wardak Province.

Now, of course, setting up the Sunni militias in Anbar was the key element of the Petraeus strategy in Iraq, which they're hoping to replicate in Afghanistan.

When [the blogger] was in Afghanistan last month, a Pashtun from Wardak warned Richard Holbrooke and Admiral Mike Mullen that many of the people signing up for the local militia were from the Hazara minority. “It won’t work,” the man said. “The Pashtun see this as not our government.”
http://www.registan.net/index.php/2009/05/12/oh-dear-god-no/

If this is true, it can only reinforce the Pashtun determination to fight, as the Hazaras are their traditional enemies, and Pashtuns will never submit to them. In terms of the Anbar Awakening, it's as if local militias designed to stand for Sunni interests were composed of Shias: setting the fox to guard the henhouse.

McKiernan did speak up several times against the use of tribal militias due to the risk of arming the wrong tribes, and this would prove his point to perfection.

Posted by: cristca9 | May 13, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

Did anybody miss this, about General McChrystal and his Special Operations unit, Task Force 6-26?


"At the outposts, some detainees ... had cold water thrown on them to cause the sensation of drowning, said Defense Department personnel who served with the unit."

Waterboarding, no? Or do you think they just sprinkled them with it, to "cause the sensation of drowning?

Posted by: cristca9 | May 13, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

The more POTUS changes,
The more the previous administration staff, policies and laws remain the same. Think of the bureaucracy as a triangle. Only the tip of the triangle changes maybe 5%, 95% of the base remains the same. It is like a 150 man pushing a 300 lb rock up the hill. Ain't gonna happen....

Posted by: bberka1 | May 14, 2009 9:53 AM | Report abuse

The more POTUS changes,
The more the previous administration staff, policies and laws remain the same. Think of the bureaucracy as a triangle. Only the tip of the triangle changes maybe 5%, 95% of the base remains the same. It is like a 150 man pushing a 300 lb rock up the hill. Ain't gonna happen....

Posted by: bberka1 | May 14, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

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