- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009


The Potomac River is a physical and a figurative divide between the White House and the Pentagon, and occupants of each building often refer to the other address as a slightly foreign place “across the river.”

The gulf is suddenly on display as President Obama contemplates whether to widen the U.S. commitment to the eight-year-old war in Afghanistan, a battle that is losing political and popular support even as it replaces Iraq as the military’s No. 1 priority.

The White House is now uncertain whether to stick with a long-planned military recalibration of the war, a hesitance that has stoked new tensions with the Defense Department.

After nine months of harmony, officials say it’s nowhere near the schism that cleaved the military and the Clinton administration in the 1990s. But how the young Democratic administration and its commanders navigate this turbulence will play a critical role in the management of the war and the cultivation of support from the military and the American public.

A senior administration official described it as “a realignment check” and played down suggestions that military leaders feel undercut. Pentagon officials insisted there is no crisis of confidence on either side, but acknowledged raw feelings and a sense of impatience.

Several officials in Washington and Afghanistan spoke on the condition of anonymity because Mr. Obama has not decided on his next move.

“I do not doubt that there are people in this building and elsewhere who feel very strongly about this and may be voicing some frustration at the pace of this decision,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the commanding general they chose for Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, are “completely comfortable,” Mr. Morrell said.

“There is no anxiousness on their part about taking some extra time about evaluating the strategy and making sure we are on the right path.”

Adm. Mullen, however, signed off on Gen. McChrystal’s blunt warning that without reinforcements the war will soon be beyond winning. Adm. Mullen endorsed more troops, telling Congress this month there will not be enough able Afghan forces to do the job fast enough.

White House officials were startled and irritated by some of Adm. Mullen’s remarks, which came as Mr. Obama and senior aides were debating a shift. Mr. Obama has since said he wants to make sure that underlying assumptions about the war still hold and he denied that Gen. McChrystal was told to pocket his request for more forces.

For many in the uniformed military, backed by prominent Republicans in Congress, the question is whether Mr. Obama will listen to his top generals and stick with a counterinsurgency campaign around which the military has organized.

For the young administration, the better question is whether the United States is fighting the right war in the right place, and whether victory on paper in Afghanistan is worth the price.

Mr. Gates, a civilian chosen by Mr. Obama, has not publicly endorsed Gen. McChrystal’s conclusions. He stayed away from a hastily scheduled powwow in Germany on Friday that included Gen. McChrystal and his two uniformed bosses, Adm. Mullen and Gen. David H. Petraeus.

“I do not think there is a rift between the military and civilians, but I do think there is a very serious debate over what is the best option,” said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. Obama doesn’t have forever to decide whether to send thousands of U.S. forces to the war, said Mr. Cordesman, who helped Gen. McChrystal draft a brutal assessment of backsliding conditions there. Delay feeds the perception that the United States is not serious and will soon walk away from the fight, he said.

Mr. Obama has sent 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year, with little to show for it. During a summer of heavy fighting, Marines pushed into parts of Helmand province and other areas once under Taliban control, but there are not enough of them to fully hold all the territory.

Troops and hundreds of U.S. civilians flowed into the country to protect voters during last month’s election. But inconclusive results and allegations of massive fraud leave the U.S. unsure who will be in charge and whether Afghans will see their government as legitimate.

President Clinton entered office in 1993 as the object of some suspicion among many in the military because he had famously avoided service in Vietnam, and he made matters far worse with what even supporters in the Pentagon thought was a ham-handed approach to the question of whether gays could serve openly.

Mr. Obama has avoided Mr. Clinton’s early missteps and earned points among skeptics for agreeing with his generals to leave more forces in Iraq longer than he planned, stop the release of potentially inflammatory photos of detainees and replace the previous Afghanistan commander with Gen. McChrystal.

Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who witnessed some of the strains of the Clinton years as a commander in Kosovo and later in Europe, said some of the impatience over the troop decision is misplaced.

“You have to give the administration time to do its homework,” Mr. Clark said.

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