From The Sunday Times
October 18, 2009
76 days since request for more troops, Obama accused of stalling
Christina Lamb in Washington
IN Afghanistan they would call it a shura, the traditional tribal way of listening to elders’ views before reaching a consensus. In Washington, where President Barack Obama has now held five war councils, they are starting to call it dithering.
With another council on the Afghan war scheduled for this week, US officials admit it could be November before a decision is finally taken on whether to agree to General Stanley McChrystal’s request for more troops. One participant revealed that the protagonists have not yet discussed troop numbers.
Latest polls show a majority of Americans now disapprove of Obama’s handling of a war which may come to define his presidency. Many senior members of his own party are in open revolt.
Senator Robert Byrd, at 91 a Democratic institution, was so incensed that he dragged himself from his hospital bed last week to make a 13-minute speech. “Does it really take 100,000 troops to find Osama Bin Laden?” he wondered. “And how much will this cost? How much in terms of more dollars? How much in terms of American blood?”
Obama has kept his own views to himself, although he is thought to be leaning towards acceptance that more forces will have to be added to the 68,000 US troops already committed. But his professorial style of asking for position papers and hearing all views is leading to accusations of drift.
“It has been 76 days since General McChrystal submitted his review to the administration requesting additional forces, and the clock continues to tick,” complained Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the senior Republican on the House foreign affairs committee.
The slow pace, explained one adviser, is explained by the fact that each meeting focuses on a different part of the problem. “They are methodically going through all the information,” he said.
“The discussion itself is not unexpected,” said a Pentagon spokesman. “It’s not as if we were expecting a rubber stamp.”
The White House gives away little after each session, barely changing the adjectives used to describe them. The first was “rigorous and deliberate”, the second “comprehensive”, the next “robust” and the last “fairly comprehensive”.
Behind the scenes a number of big personalities are jostling for power. The man said to have the president’s ear is Robert Gates, the steely defence secretary who served the previous administration of George W Bush and who believes more troops are necessary.
Obama also respects the views of General James Jones, the national security adviser, for his on-the-ground experience of Afghanistan from 2003 to 2006, when he was Nato’s supreme allied commander for Europe. He is said to be wary of sending more men. “Afghanistan is a country that’s quite large and swallows up a lot of people,” he said recently.
The biggest tussle is between McChrystal and Vice-President Joe Biden, who argues against escalation. Biden, who wants more emphasis on Pakistan, pointed out in a paper entitled Counterterrorism Plus that the real threat is not the Taliban but Al-Qaeda, whose leaders have moved over the border.
Biden, 66, seen as the in-house pessimist, has adopted a subtle campaign to make his case, with aides letting slip to journalists the extent of his influence over his inexperienced commander-in-chief.
While McChrystal was slapped down for unwisely choosing a lecture in London to press his point, there has been no attempt by the White House to rein in Biden. Yet with Obama leaning towards sending more troops, the vice-president seems to be heading for defeat.
Although Biden prides himself on his foreign policy experience, a key factor in his selection, critics point out that his judgments have proved questionable in the past.
“When was the last time Biden was right about anything?” asked Thomas Ricks, a military writer affiliated with the Center for a New American Security, a think tank founded by Democrats.
Biden voted against the Gulf war of 1991, voted for the Iraq invasion of 2003, proposed partitioning Iraq into three sections in 2006, and in 2007 opposed the troop surge that was later credited with turning Iraq around.
Whether or not he succeeds in convincing Obama of his case, nobody can dispute that he has changed the nature of the debate. Biden reflects widespread scepticism among Democrats about investing more heavily in an eight-year war that the US and its allies seem to be losing.
Jim McGovern, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, is pushing a bill that calls for an exit strategy. He argues that extra American troops will only antagonise the Afghans and help the Taliban win more recruits.
Even some Republicans are beginning to question further military commitment. George Will, the conservative columnist, has advocated a reduction in forces, arguing that Washington should wash its hands of a country where travelling is “like walking through the Old Testament”.