National security adviser James L. Jones - the president’s point man in a momentous debate on U.S. policy in Afghanistan - has repeatedly shifted his assessments of the war as he transformed himself from a top Marine general to a civilian adviser in recent years.
Mr. Jones declared as recently as 2006 that the Taliban had been tactically neutralized by coalition forces in southern Afghanistan.
In the ensuing years, though, he has warned that the Taliban is expanding its reach while offering varying opinions on whether more U.S. troops are needed to fight them, a review of his public statements shows.
In an interview with The Washington Times, the former Marine general and NATO commander acknowledged his views on Afghanistan have soured in the three years since he left the military. He said security in Afghanistan had deteriorated “because of the [U.S.] failure to see the interaction of security, development, and governance and rule of law.”
“I think that is coming clear in spades now, that the failure - the tendency to focus so much on troop strength and not enough on the other factors, the development of the national Afghan police, for example which was on life support for so many years, the development of the Afghan National Army, which has never really gone fast enough - those are things that as we developed a strategy that was released in March were clearly highlighted. And now everybody is turning full-scale attention to them,” Mr. Jones said.
As President Obama’s national security adviser, Mr. Jones plays the pivotal role of referee in an intense administration debate over whether to shift strategy and increase troop levels for the second time this year.
The final decisions, which could include whether to shift focus away from the Taliban and toward a narrower war against al Qaeda, carry high stakes. The top military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has submitted a counterinsurgency strategy that reportedly favors sending as many as 40,000 troop reinforcements with a warning that the war may be won or lost in the next 12 months.
As outgoing NATO commander in September 2006, Mr. Jones appeared in the Pentagon pressroom to declare a tactical victory over the Taliban in south, the insurgent stronghold where the alliance oversees operations.
Told by reporters at the time that the Afghanistan war effort was faltering, Mr. Jones disagreed. He said the allies were establishing a “permanent” southern presence that would prevent a Taliban return. No more troops were needed, he said.
A year later, Mr. Jones, as a civilian, signed a report as co-chairman of the Afghanistan Study Group, which said the war effort was in danger of “faltering.” More troops were needed, said the report, which argued, “The Taliban have been able to infiltrate many areas throughout the country, especially the south.”
Mr. Jones has zigzagged again since he joined the administration in January, most recently signaling that he may side with Democrats who do not want to endorse a further troop escalation beyond the 21,000 approved by the president earlier this year.
Mr. Jones told CNN on Sunday, “I think the end is much more complex than just about adding ‘X’ number of troops. Afghanistan is a country that’s quite large and that swallows up a lot of people.”
Despite his earlier study group’s warning that the war effort was in danger of faltering, he said on CNN, ” I don’t foresee the return of the Taliban and I want to be very clear that Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling.”
Mr. Jones’ coolness toward Gen. McChrystal’s troop request has prompted some biting criticism from an old friend, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. The two worked together as military liaison officers to the Senate in the late 1970s.
“It’s well known, it’s broadcast all over television, that there are individuals, including the vice president of the United States, now, unfortunately, the national security adviser, the chief political adviser to the president, Mr. Rahm Emanuel who don’t want to alienate the left base of the Democrat Party,” Mr. McCain said.
Mr. Jones responded to that criticism by saying on CNN, “The strategy does not belong to any political party, and I can assure you that the president of the United States is not playing to any political base. And I take exception to that remark.”
Mr. McCain did not back off his criticism, saying the next day on “Imus in the Morning” that Mr. Jones had been wrong on troop levels in Iraq in 2007.
In September 2007, Mr. Jones led a study that called for withdrawing forces, effectively ending President Bush’s troop surge. “Significant reductions, consolidations, and realignments would appear to be possible and prudent,” that report concluded.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat Nevada, cited the Jones report as evidence that the troop surge had failed.
“It is discouraging that the president stubbornly claims his failed policy is working even as this latest report describes many Iraqi security forces as focused more on fostering civil war than on suppressing it,” he said.
The administration continued the surge in spite of Mr. Jones’ advice. A year later, violence in Iraq decreased significantly amid a general consensus that the new strategy had worked.
Mr. McCain also has charged that Mr. Jones was taking too long to coordinate a decision on more troops for Afghanistan.
“This is the strategy that will succeed,” he said of the McChrystal plan. “It’s a counterinsurgency strategy. A kind that worked in Iraq, adjusted to the different situation and conditions in Afghanistan. We can and will - we can and must succeed there. And the longer we wait, the weeks, then the longer it takes for us to get the much-needed help over there.”
Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, author and military analyst, said he thinks Mr. Jones is fulfilling his role as national security adviser by providing a variety of options.
“James Jones is not someone who just fell off the turnip truck,” Mr. Allard said. “He has combat experience, a lot of it. He was commandant of the Marine Corps. He’s been NATO commander. So, he’s probably the most experienced member of that Obama team from an operational and national security standpoint.
“And so I think any criticism of him would have to be premature at best. Let’s see how this thing plays out. Until then, I don’t know how you can judge. I think he is superb from what I’ve seen of him. To this point, I think he’s doing a fine job.”
In late 2006, Mr. Jones was wrapping up a three-year stint as the first Marine to head NATO, which had assumed major command status in Afghanistan. The debate then was much as it is now. The Taliban had made deep inroads in the south, and the Bush administration was being pressed to increase troop levels. NATO then launched a major offensive to clear villages around the Taliban spiritual capital of Kandahar.
Mr. Jones appeared at the Pentagon to deliver a relatively upbeat message.
“I think [the Taliban] are probably doing some severe analysis about their tactics and what they chose,” he said. “Where they’ll reappear, I don’t know. There’s no doubt in my mind that with the coalition and [international] forces, that we have enough troop strength to counter anything they want to throw at us.”
A little more than a year later, he headed the study group that called for more troops.
At the Pentagon, he said, “It is going well in the regions where we had permanent presence. In the south there was no such presence; there is now. This is the test, this is a moment of - the moment of truth. I’m hopeful that in the near future the south will become as peaceful as the north and parts of the west are.”
A relatively short time later, he signed a letter, with study group co-chairman Thomas R. Pickering, that said, “The progress achieved after six years of international engagement is under serious threat from resurgent violence, weakening international resolve, mounting regional challenges and a growing lack of confidence on the part of the Afghan people about the future direction of their country. The United States and the international community have tried to win the struggle in Afghanistan with too few military forces.”
Mr. Jones said in The Times’ interview last Friday that after the big NATO offensive in the south, the Taliban changed tactics.
“The Taliban took us on almost conventionally because they evidently believed that NATO wouldn’t fight,” he said. “The seven or eight countries that put combat troops to do the fighting in [Regional Command] South dealt them a major blow tactically.
“And if you recall it was such a heavy blow that in the spring of ‘07 there wasn’t much of a spring offensive. That was a major hit and ever since then the Taliban tactics have changed. They’re hit and run. Small skirmishes. Squad-size activities. Platoon-size at the most. They clearly learned a lesson there that taking on NATO forces frontally was not a good strategy.”
Mr. Jones recalled his last meeting as NATO commander with the North Atlantic Council, the military alliance’s governing board.
“I started questioning whether we were paying enough attention to things like combating drugs, combating corruption, effective governance, rule of law and the cohesion that has to exist between security, development and good governance. So those three pillars,” he said.
“I told them that I thought that failure to demand better performance across those three pillars and more cohesion was going to prolong our involvement and could lead to major problems in the future. So on that score I think I’ve been very consistent since ‘05.”