McChrystal and Gates Raise Tension in Afghanistan Debate

McChrystal and Gates Raise Tension in Afghanistan Debate

Unlike the chattering classes, senior military officers didn’t raise an eyebrow when General Stanley McChrystal recently said he had only spoken once to President Obama since assuming command in Afghanistan. The military chain of command is there for a reason, and Obama seems to be sticking to it more faithfully than President George W. Bush did. But tensions are inevitable as the troop needs of U.S. commanders on the ground come up against the reservations of a political leadership increasingly leery of being trapped in an Afghan quagmire.

Some have argued that McChrystal violated military protocol by giving a speech in London last week emphasizing the need for more forces in Afghanistan at a time when that issue is the subject of hot debate inside the Administration. Obama, who convenes two key strategy meetings on Afghanistan this week, held an unusual meeting with McChrystal last Friday.

But in remarks widely reported as directed at McChrystal, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday, “In this process, it is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations — civilians and military alike — provide our best advice to the President candidly but privately.” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell insisted, however, that Gates’ message was meant for all privy to the Administration’s Afghan policy deliberations, and “is not a rebuke of Stan McChrystal.”

The military chain of command is a strange beast, rarely understood by civilians. But it’s sacrosanct inside the military, which is why President Bush caused heartburn among many in uniform when he began regularly communicating directly with Army General David Petraeus, then leading the surge of nearly 30,000 additional U.S. troops in Iraq. That represented a short-circuiting of the chain that ought to have passed through Gates and Admiral William Fallon, then chief of U.S. Central Command, and raised concerns that Bush was ignoring a military hierarchy critical to the smooth functioning of the civilian-military relationship and of the military itself.

Jones on Sunday appeared to criticize McChrystal’s London talk, in which the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan had warned that setting more limited war aims there would yield a “Chaos-istan.” The National Security Adviser emphasized that the Administration would prefer that its internal debates be kept internal. “Ideally, it’s better for military advice to come up through the chain of command” and remain private, Jones said, instead of being voiced publicly as McChrystal did last Thursday before the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

Jones was himself accused of straying out of his lane last June during a trip to Afghanistan, when he warned U.S. commanders against asking for more troops this year beyond the 21,000 reinforcements that Obama had authorized in March. Asking for further reinforcements even before those already approved had even been deployed, Jones warned, would give the President “a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment.” The pungent comment — military lingo meaning “what the [expletive]” — was made in the presence of the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, who dutifully reported it. And eyebrows were certainly raised Sunday when Jones conceded, on a talk show, that he hadn’t spoken with his boss since Friday. In light of the pressing challenges of Afghanistan, some national-security experts saw that as almost a dereliction of duty.

As Commander in Chief, the President is forced to strike a balance between his generals’ combat needs and what America is prepared to commit. No President wants to send more young men and women into harm’s way than is necessary, but nor can he afford to ignore what his on-the-ground commanders tell him they need in order to prevail. Many in the military deem political pressure to keep troop numbers down a form of betrayal that could risk American lives, and no general has ever asked for fewer troops, more slowly delivered, while waging war. But civilian control of the military remains paramount.

The key decision facing Obama now is whether or not to back McChrystal’s push for a counterinsurgency strategy that will require up to 40,000 extra troops. Or he might tilt toward the option being pushed by Vice President Joe Biden — a counterterrorism approach that wouldn’t require additional U.S. troops, but would instead rely on more missile strikes to keep al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies off balance. Secretary Gates remains leery of adding to the 68,000 U.S. troops due in Afghanistan by year’s end, fearing greater numbers may lead Afghans to view the U.S. as an occupying army. “Once the Commander in Chief makes his decisions,” Gates said Monday, “we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability.” But if that choice gives the military less than it believes it needs, no verbal slap from the Defense Secretary or the National Security Adviser is going to stop senior men in uniform from second-guessing the Commander in Chief.

Read “A Window On the War in Afghanistan.”

Watch TIME’s video “The Challenge on the Ground in Afghanistan.”