Deconstructing Mixed Afghanistan Messages

Suddenly Afghanistan is above the fold, front and center at the New York Times. Near-orgasmic tales of great wealth and riches sit adjacent to sto

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Suddenly Afghanistan is above the fold, front and center at the New York Times. Near-orgasmic tales of great wealth and riches sit adjacent to stories of slow progress, political chaos, and other tidbits designed to send one message: Leaving Afghanistan is a mistake, Mr. President. We'll be losers. Losers....

This little bomblet is a stellar example:

Six months after President Obama decided to send more forces to Afghanistan, the halting progress in the war has crystallized longstanding tensions within the government over the viability of his plan to turn around the country and begin pulling out by July 2011.

Within the administration, the troubles in clearing out the Taliban from a second-tier region and the elusive loyalties of the Afghan president have prompted anxious discussions about whether the policy can work on the timetable the president has set. Even before the recent setbacks, the military was highly skeptical of setting a date to start withdrawing, but Mr. Obama insisted on it as a way to bring to conclusion a war now in its ninth year.

Please note the careful parsing the Times reporter used. "Anxious discussions" do not necessarily include the President, the chief of staff, or the Vice President, who was against any escalation in Afghanistan during the first round of frenzied talks.

Jonathan Alter's book The Promise: President Obama, Year One has a detailed look at exactly how the military (Note: By military, I mean the top brass, not the troops in the field) uses the press to try to "jam" the President into their agenda, beginning with the intentional leak of the "McCrystal Report".

The flap over the leak did nothing to chasten the Pentagon. In fact the military, practiced in the ways of Washington, now ran PR circles around the neophytes in the Obama White House, leaking something to the Pentagon reporters nearly every day. The motive for all the leaks seemed clear to the White House: to box the president into the policy that McChrystal had recommended.

And this:

Petraeus of course was a pro at cultivating reporters.

And finally, just brazen outright near-insubordination:

Mullen himself began to tout what was supposed to be internal advice. He invited the bureau chiefs of the five TV networks to the Pentagon for a background lunch, where he told them that the McChrystal Plan had to be adopted in full, including a five-to eight-year commitment of forces, maybe longer, or the United States faced defeat.

There's nothing accidental about these stories. When you read breathless accounts of shiny mineral deposits framed like this:

“There is stunning potential here,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, said in an interview on Saturday. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”

I'll just bet he does. It's also not news. Assume nothing more than the foundation being laid for the Pentagon to try and box the President into a longer combat stay in Afghanistan.

In 2009, things didn't exactly go as planned for Petraeus (who likely has Presidential ambitions, by the way) and company. Things escalated in October, 2009 when McChrystal spoke before the Institute for Strategic Studies in London and sneeringly referred to a "plan called 'Chaos-istan,'" which was lifted from a classified CIA report. He dug his hole deeper when he was asked if he could support a presidential decision to fight the war with drones and special forces focused on defeating Al Qaeda and the Taliban. His answer? "The short, glib answer is no."

Alter's book has the inside take on this:

This was insubordination, and the White House was livid. Was McChrystal out of control, or just naive?...Obama and his senior staff believed this had Mullen's and Petraeus' fingerprints all over it. They were using McChrystal to jam the president, box him in, manipulate him, game him, use whatever verb you like..."

And that's what they're doing now. Here's the timeline:

  • March, 2010 General McChrystal goes on patrol. The headline for this one (ABC News) is laughable: Exclusive: Gen. McChrystal Goes on Patrol in 'Taliban Vacation Spot'. All hail Gen. McCrystal, your crinkly-eyed guy just hangin' with the troops.
  • April, 2010 Defense Secretary Robert Gates thinks it's a mistake to set a deadline to end American military action.
  • May, 2010US President Barack Obama said Wednesday he expects to meet his timeline and begin drawing down US troops in Afghanistan by summer 2011.
  • June, 2010 - The action gets kicked up a notch or ten. We have Harry Reid rebuking Russ Feingold for trying to legislate withdrawal dates. We have the New York Times' amazingly critical article on June 11, 2010, quoting any number of anonymous sources alleging Karzai doubts that the West can defeat the Taliban.

    There is Barney Frank's proposal for deep cuts in defense spending. There is pushback from Secretary Gates on Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal. More members of the House threaten to vote against war funding. A momentum grows toward cementing in troop withdrawals in 2011.

    The conflict clearly emerges between our military and the rest of us.

    Then the EUREKA! moment rides in to save the day! Poof! The Mother of All Mineral Deposits is newly "discovered" and "valued" at 1 Trillion dollars, and Petraeus dances the jig at the prospect of all that wonderful booty boosting the Afghan economy.

    Finally, soberly, as if to keep us all honest, our military top brass remind us all that if we want the golden ticket, we just need to hang on a little longer. And maybe reconsider that troop withdrawal in 2011...

You'd have to be a fool not to see how this is intended to be played.

And yet. It seems that the good generals signed off on the dotted line, and Americans owe it to themselves to hold them accountable for that. Back to Alter's book again...

As they walked along the portico toward the Oval Office, Biden asked if the new policy of beginning a significant withdrawal in 2011 was a direct presidential order that couldn't be countermanded by the military. Obama said yes...

Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, "David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in eighteen months?"

"Sir, I'm confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame," Petraeus replied.

"Good. No problem," the president said. "If you can't do the things you say you can in eighteen months then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?"

"Yes, sir, in agreement," Petraeus said.

"Yes, sir," Mullen said.

The president was crisp but informal. "Bob, you have any problems? he asked Gates, who said he was fine with it...

These quotes weren't invented. Alter was meticulous about sourcing his information. This happened. These generals agreed. They agreed.

It's up to us to enforce that agreement, because the end game here is to weaken the President and make him look weak, ineffective. Afghanistan's minerals and Afghanistan's problems are Afghanistan's.

I say that as one who has been wildly ambivalent about Afghanistan, but believe without question that the current press plays are nothing more than cynical political nonsense advanced by these generals and intended to box President Obama in to extending an unpopular and deadly Bush-era policy disaster.

UPDATE: Ever-theatrical, General Petraeus faints under the intense questioning of Senator John McCain during a hearing on progress in Afghanistan.

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