The White House is taking pains to downplay conflict between the executive branch and the Pentagon over Afghanistan policy, as President Obama steps up his focus on the still-unresolved war plan.
“I get that the Washington game is to do the back-and-forth, I get that,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. “It's being played well here.”
A spate of news reports over the weekend and a rare, Sunday talk show appearance by Obama National Security Adviser Jim Jones criticizing Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, combined to promote the notion of a rift, which the administration rejected.
“Once the commander in chief makes his decisions, we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Association of the U.S. Army Forum.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon chief warned, “It is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations, civilian and military alike, provide our best advice to the president — candidly but privately.”
Obama this week will hold a series of meetings on plans for Afghanistan. Last week in Denmark, he met with McChrystal, who is publicly pushing for a troop increase and a counterinsurgency strategy.
Some in the administration view McChrystal's proposal as too costly and lengthy a commitment. The war in Afghanistan, now nearly eight years long, has lost significant public and political support.
Michael O'Hanlon, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution and a national security columnist for The Examiner, dismissed the notion of a conflict between the White House and the Pentagon, calling McChrystal “isolated” with few defenders.
“People are I think generally concerned that McChrystal went a bit too far last week in London, and in fact there are people in the Pentagon who think he went too far,” O'Hanlon said. “They don't totally applaud the way he spoke, and I think that is one of the issues.”
McChrystal last week in London gave a high-profile speech and a series of interviews in which he criticized an alternative, counterterrorism approach in Afghanistan that would use fewer troops and have a limited objective.
In his speech, he warned against a plan that would turn the war-strafed country into “Chaos-istan,” which he described as a “Somolialike haven of chaos that we simply manage from the outside.”
Obama's decision on Afghanistan is shaping up to be the toughest and most contentious of his already momentous administration. Many in his own party are against continuing to drop money on the conflict, while Republicans are pushing him to embrace McChrystal's recommendation.
At the White House, Gibbs said McChrystal is doing the job Obama hired him for.
“The general made an assessment, and we're going through a series of decisions, including that assessment,” Gibbs said. “That's the process that the president is going through … to get this strategy right and to do it not based on the back-and-forth or rumors about this or that, but on what he thinks is best in the best national security advice and posture of the United States of America.”