February 02, 2008

The Debate To Which You Should Be Paying Attention

Gang, the most important debate this past week was not the one between McCain and Romney or the one between Obama and Clinton. The most important debate this week was the debate, still ongoing, within national security circles on how we manage commitments in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senior Pentagon leaders said yesterday that Gen. David H. Petraeus's call for a pause in troop withdrawals from Iraq this summer represents only one view on the issue -- albeit an important one -- and that they would recommend that President Bush also consider the stress on U.S. ground forces and other global military risks when determining future troop levels.

"I find all the talk about a freeze or a pause in Iraq so interesting," said Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"I know General Petraeus has said publicly he wants to be able to assess the situation after the surge brigades come home," Mullen said at a Pentagon news conference. But he stressed that the Joint Chiefs and Adm. William Fallon, chief of U.S. Central Command, are also working on recommendations for force levels in Iraq, not in opposition to Petraeus but "from different perspectives."

Here's what that means: David Petraeus is going to make recommendations to the president and the joint chiefs based on what he thinks is necessary for the U.S.-led mission in Iraq to continue its newfound successes. He will lobby, Abu Muqawama is guessing, for as many troops to stay in Iraq as is possible. His idea of what is possible, however, may be very different from what the joint chiefs think is possible. Why? It's not because they want to "lose" in Iraq. They have two other huge concerns on their minds: Afghanistan and the health of the ground forces (especially the U.S. Army).

The ultimate decision-makers here, of course, are Sec. Gates and President Bush. Arriving hot on the heels of two major reports suggesting the Afghanistan mission is in serious danger of failing, Abu Muqawama is guessing that Admirals Mullen and Fallon and Sec. Gates are going to be very wary of extending the troops levels in Iraq -- their reasoning going something like this: If troop levels in Iraq stay the same, there is still no guarantee we are going to get the kind of political reconciliation and reforms necessary for our transitory military successes to be turned into anything concrete. We haven't even tried, by contrast, to be successful in Afghanistan yet. Nor have we seriously thought about the effect Iraq is having on the long-term health of the Army, which Gen. Casey and others keep warning us about.

Thus Abu Muqawama's guess is that some serious decision-makers are going to say no to Gen. Petraeus. Once again, this will not be because they are unpatriotic or want Hillary Clinton to be president: they just have to balance the needs of Afghanistan and the long-term health of the ground forces against what is still a long-shot in Iraq.

So all that is going to land on President Bush's desk. What is he going to decide? Well, on the one hand, Abu Muqawama cannot see him not giving Gen. Petraeus, the savior of 2007, whatever he wants. On the other hand ... well, there is no other hand.

This is most unfortunate. President Bush may very well see his presidency wrapped up in Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan as the next president's worry. That is not, however, the way he should be looking at things. The occupant of the White House may change next January 20th, but national security risks and threats will not. The president, for the long-term sake of the country and not for his legacy, needs to seriously weigh the opinions of his joint chiefs right now. If we cut troop levels in Iraq, it is not a given that the country will descend into chaos. (That may happen anyway.)

The NATO mission in Afghanistan, by contrast, is most certainly failing. Iraq has sucked up both the material and intellectual resources of the United States, and our European allies are losing the will to expend any more of their hard power. If we lose in both Iraq and in Afghanistan, history will never forgive this president, and neither will the American people. If we're going to maintain troop levels in Iraq through the summer, Abu Muqawama wants a damn good explanation of how policy-makers see that affecting both the long-term health of the ground forces and the mission in Afghanistan.

Finally, on a lighter note, the big game is tomorrow. No, not that one. This one. Allez ... l'Ecosse!

Update: Charlie, here. Check out the most recent developments on the NATO side of things: Die deutsche Regierung sagt nein to sending more troops to Afghanistan (and they've got their Lederhosen in quite a twist about it). Stay tuned for what that means for the Canadian contingent. Oh, and for any who've ever rolled your eyes at the striped-pants, cocktail-circuit diplomats of European capitols, let this be a lesson to you. Our diplomatic work there is just as important as what goes on in Islamabad and Kabul, especially if you care at all about the future of NATO.