The Judgment to Lead

It is now more than 76 days after General McChrystal submitted an assessment of what was needed to carry out the “comprehensive new strategy” President Obama announced in March. McChrystal’s assessment was delayed at the request of the administration and the General was warned not to include a request for more troops until the President was “ready” to consider it. :  Obama’s Chief of Staff is quick to affix the blame for this delay where it belongs – squarely on George Bush’s shoulders:

One of President Obama’s top advisers said Sunday the Bush administration failed to ask critical questions about the war in Afghanistan, leaving the Obama administration starting from scratch — and leaving the war “adrift.”

“The president is asking the questions that have never been asked on the civilian side, the political side, the military side and the strategic side,” White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

This was news to those of us who thought Barack Obama took ownership of Afghanistan when he announced a change in strategy. On March 27th after a two month long policy review, the Commander in Chief assured us that the war on terror was – at long last – on the right track. Months of careful deliberation with a diverse panel of experts had yielded “a clear and focused goal”:

Today, I am announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.This marks the conclusion of a careful policy review that I ordered as soon as I took office. My Administration has heard from our military commanders and diplomats. We have consulted with the Afghan and Pakistani governments; with our partners and NATO allies; and with other donors and international organizations. And we have also worked closely with members of Congress here at home. Now, I’d like to speak clearly and candidly to the American people.

Now we learn that two months of talks featuring a host of policy makers and allies was not enough. Apparently the small matter of what it would take to accomplish the President’s strategy is something not one of these geniuses thought important enough to determine.:  You see, the strategy sounded so good on paper. No one thought to ask whether we actually had enough boots on the ground to do the job:

“It was easy to say, ‘Hey, I support COIN,’ because nobody had done the assessment of what it would really take, and nobody had thought through whether we want to do what it takes,” said one senior civilian administration official who participated in the [March] review, using the shorthand for counterinsurgency.

…“We were operating under the assumption that when they said COIN, that’s what they meant,” said a senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan, “and they were serious about committing the necessary resources.”

Meanwhile in Helmand province, the Marines have created what may be the start of an Afghan Awakening:

As Washington debates its Afghanistan strategy in endless high-level meetings, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines are waging a classical counterinsurgency in Nawa with remarkable results. Peace is still fragile here, and a determined enemy attack could disrupt the delicate relationships that the Marines and their civilian partners are beginning to build. But for now, the Taliban aren’t fighting in Nawa. Instead, low-level insurgents and their emissaries are coming forward, saying they want to make peace.

“Anytime a big-T Taliban shows himself or tries to fight us, we rally our forces and try to kill him,” said McCollough, the battalion commander. “But the long-term win is taking away all of his low-level support. Once he loses that, he loses the area.”

…The architect of the Marines’ progress in Nawa is Lt. Col. McCollough, a slight, fair-haired 40-year-old with chiseled features and stern, ice-blue eyes. McCollough served two tours in Iraq’s Anbar Province, the locus of the Awakening movement that saw Sunnis turning against al-Qaida. His battalion, about 20 percent of whom served in Iraq, trained for 10 months ahead of their current deployment, including three months focusing on counterinsurgency. They practiced asking well-defined questions about their new area: Where are the schools and mosques? Who teaches and preaches in them? Where do those leaders live, and where do their allegiances lie? They took part in field exercises that tested the Marines’ understanding of Islam, Afghan culture, and Pashtunwali, the informal code of the south. Eighty Marines in the battalion received Pashto language training, and 40 of them went further, receiving intensive instruction.

“They know exactly what they’re doing out there,” McCollough said. “No patrol goes out and comes back that has not talked with locals in the area, and it’s more than just talking to them. There are things we’re learning as we’re talking to them. We studied our [counterinsurgency] doctrine. Having come in here not knowing really that much at all about the area, there was a lot we had to learn.”

On July 2, which some Marines here call “D-Day,” hundreds of troops materialized overnight in Nawa, walking the dirt roads with Afghan soldiers, stopping to talk to locals as the sun rose. They got into a lot of fights, killed many insurgents, and drove over buried bombs.

An Afghan discusses a battle damage claim with Marine Lt. Mike Kuiper. Click image to expand.After that happened, the Taliban basically said, ‘There’s too many Marines in Nawa,” said Lt. Mike Kuiper, a civil affairs officer. “They said, ‘Nawa’s lost. Let’s pull out.’ “

Since then, Nawa has become one of Afghanistan’s rare success stories. For once in this profoundly under-resourced war, there are enough troops to provide reliable security. Marines have moved into abandoned compounds, some taken over from the Taliban, and walk round-the-clock foot patrols, resting in cornfields under the stars. With their civilian counterparts, they’re executing a dizzying array of reconstruction projects, hiring local contractors and pumping money into the economy. Families who fled months of fighting between the Taliban and Afghan police in Nawa are returning. The bazaar, empty and mostly shuttered when the Marines arrived, now draws thousands on Fridays, the week’s busiest shopping day.

In Helmand, the Marines are winning the war their Commander in Chief is still not sure he wants to fight. Meanwhile back in Washington, the President is doing what he does best: talking. And blaming George Bush.

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