Flawed process yields flawed plan in Afghanistan

The process by which President Barack Obama decided on a new plan for pursuing the war in Afghanistan is complete. We are thus in a position not only to reach tentative conclusions about the plan, but also to evaluate the decision-making process and the speech in which the end-product was announced.

All three — the deliberations, the speech and the plan — seem seriously flawed.

We have known for a while that the administration’s Afghanistan deliberations were taking too long.

First, it was a month until Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Obama’s commander in the Afghan theater and author of the plan being considered by the administration, was brought into the discussions.

Second, when the White House war planners finally talked to McChrystal, they discovered he was not on the same page as the administration. McChrystal said his plan was designed to “defeat the Taliban and secure the population.” But key members of the White House team insisted that the mission should be to “degrade,” not defeat the Taliban.

McChrystal responded that defeating the Taliban was the mission he had been given in March. Obama agreed, but decided that the mission should be redefined, and the general’s plan adjusted accordingly.

In short, the decision on a plan of action was delayed because the White House waited a month before bringing McChrystal into the loop and, when the general finally was consulted, the White House decided it did not like the mission it had given him.
There’s a word for this — incompetence.

A different word describes Obama’s speech announcing his plan — defensiveness.

For one thing, he felt defensive about the delay. The president stated, correctly, that it was worthwhile to take the time needed to evaluate the situation in Afghanistan before making a final decision. But the evaluation would have taken much less time if Obama had communicated his true concept of the mission to McChrystal in the first instance.

Mostly, though, Obama was defensive about the decision he reached. He felt compelled, for example, to explain why Afghanistan is not like Vietnam. That’s nice to know, but not exactly inspiring.

Obama’s defensiveness might have stemmed from the fact that his leftist base wants him to give up in Afghanistan. Or perhaps it stemmed from the president’s own ambivalence, which is reflected in his decision to establish a date, July 2011, by which the U.S. will begin withdrawing troops.

Obama defended the imposition of his timetable primarily on the grounds that, given our economy, we cannot commit to a more sustained effort in Afghanistan.

This declaration may or may not reassure Obama’s leftist base. But there is no doubt it will reassure the Taliban. There’s a word for committing additional American troops to battle while simultaneously signaling to the enemy a lack of resolve to win — irresponsibility.

This leads us to the most important component of the Afghanistan evaluation process, Obama’s plan. For instance, we will deploy only about three-fourths the number of troops Gen. McChrystal asked for.

Obama hopes to fill part of the gap by persuading our allies to commit additional troops. But even if he succeeds, allied troops usually are not interchangeable with American forces.

But the bigger concern is the July 2011 target date for beginning our withdrawal, which signals that we are in the fight only for the short term.

Some members of the administration have attempted to downplay the significance of this date. They say it is not a hard-and-fast deadline, and (as Obama himself said) conditions on the ground will be taken into account.

These qualifications are better than an ironclad commitment to withdraw. But they still leave uncertainty about the strength of our commitment.

It is possible that Obama’s plan will succeed. But the president has not used his three months of deliberations and his address to the nation to maximize the likelihood of success. Instead he has planted the seed of failure.

Paul Mirengoff is a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and a principal author of Powerlineblog.com.

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