Jobless Rate Is Key to Fate of Dems in 2010

By Neil King, Wall Street Journal - October 7, 2009

Democrats have found someone worth fighting in Afghanistan. His name is Stan McChrystal.

The other night, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went after the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, "with all due respect," for supposedly disrespecting the chain of command. Around the Congressional Democratic Caucus, we're told Members refer to General McChrystal as "General MacArthur," after the commander in Korea sacked by Harry Truman.

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President Obama and General McChrystal

White House aides have fanned these flames with recent leaks to the media that "officials are challenging" his assessment asking for more troops. In the last two days, the White House National Security Adviser and the Secretary of Defense have both suggested that the general should keep his mouth shut. President Obama called him in Friday for a talking-to on the tarmac at Copenhagen airport.

Though a decorated Army four-star officer, the General's introduction to Beltway warfare is proving to be brutal. To be fair, Gen. McChrystal couldn't know that his Commander in Chief would go wobbly so soon on his commitment to him as well as to his own Afghan strategy when he was tapped for the job in AprilWe're told by people who know him that Gen. McChrystal "feels terrible" and "had no intention whatsoever of trying to lobby and influence" the Administration. His sense of bewilderment makes perfect sense anywhere but in the political battlefield of Washington. He was, after all, following orders.

Recall that in March Mr. Obama unveiled his "comprehensive new strategy . . . to reverse the Taliban's gains and promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government." The Commander in Chief pledged to properly resource this "war of necessity," which he also called during the 2008 campaign "the central front on terror." The President then sacked his war commander, who had been chosen by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in favor of Gen. McChrystal, an expert in counterinsurgency.

Upon arriving in June, Gen. McChrystal launched his assessment of the forces required to execute the Obama strategy. His confidential study was completed in August and sent to the Pentagon. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Michael Mullen told Congress that more troops would be needed, and a figure of 30,000-40,000 was bandied about.

The figure has clearly spooked the Administration. Soon after, Gen. McChrystal's confidential report was leaked to the Washington Post by, well, you'll have to ask Bob Woodward. The report said that the U.S. urgently needs to reverse a "deteriorating" security situation. Soon the full retreat began in Washington, led by a vocal group within the Administration that wants to scale back the mission. The White House told the Pentagon to hold off asking for troops and Gen. McChrystal not to testify to Congress. Remarkably, President Obama mused on the Sunday talks shows, "Are we doing the right thing?"

Then Gen. McChrystal gave a speech last Thursday before the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. It was scheduled and approved by the Pentagon weeks before the Afghan political jitters seized official Washington. The General was hardly incendiary.

"We need to reverse the current trends, and time does matter," he said. Asked vaguely about taking a narrower approach that leaves Afghanistan to its own devices and strikes at terrorists from afar, Gen. McChrystal offered that "a strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a short-sighted one." He warned the country would descend into "Chaos-istan."

What really worries Democrats is the prospect of Midterm-istan if Mr. Obama escalates the war. But some thought to play up the General's innocuous comment into an attempt to torpedo the latest Administration rethink.

In fact, the White House is merely revisiting the idea rejected in its "careful policy review" last spring to move from ambitious counterinsurgency to "counterterrorism" that would involve fewer troops and target al Qaeda instead of the Taliban. Vice President Joe Biden champions the change, and Sen. John Kerry and Speaker Pelosi have endorsed it.

The Biden faction says changes in the region justify a U-turn: An expanded U.S. force would merely be fighting a motley group of insurgents who aren't planning the next 9/11. This is partly true, but the links between the Taliban and al Qaeda are longstanding, particularly in the Pashtun areas of the south. If America pulls back and lets Mullah Omar create a Talibanistan in Helmand and Kandahar, al Qaeda operatives will soon follow.

As we've learned the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan, successful counterterrorism requires intelligence. This comes from earning the trust of the people, which in turn can only happen if they are protected. The Biden approach would pull U.S. soldiers back behind high walls, far from the field of battle, and turns security over to the Afghan army and police before they are prepared for the job.

The sudden Afghan rethink also jeopardizes progress in Pakistan, the world's leading sanctuary for al Qaeda. The Pakistani willingness to expand American drone strikes and launch a military campaign in their tribal regions dates squarely to the Administration's recommitment to the region. Now that Mr. Obama is having second thoughts, so might the Pakistanis.

The President's very public waver is already doing strategic harm. The Taliban are getting a morale boost and claiming victory, while our allies in Europe have one more reason to rethink their own deployments. Such a victory, as the head of the British army Sir David Richards warned on Sunday, would have an "intoxicating effect" on extremist Islam around the world.

Commanders in Chief can change their minds. George W. Bush waited too long to embrace the "surge." He had private doubts when the casualties also surged in 2007, but he gave the new approach a chance to succeed. Mr. Obama is blinking even before all the additional troops he ordered to Afghanistan have had time to deploy to the theater.

Gen. McChrystal's liberal critics also have very short memories. In 2003, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki clashed with his superiors by saying many more troops were needed to pacify Iraq. He became a Democratic hero and is now Mr. Obama's Veterans Secretary. In this case, Gen. McChrystal has become a political target merely for taking at face value Mr. Obama's order to fight the war properly. His superiors, the Central Commander David Petraeus and Adm. Fallon, back him, but can hardly be said to question civil control of the military.

In an interview with Newsweek, Gen. McChrystal said he wouldn't resign if the President rejects his request for more troops. If he were really trying to dictate policy, he'd have given a different answer. But we don't think Gen. McChrystal should stay to implement a Biden war plan either. No commander in uniform should ask his soldiers to die for a strategy he doesn't think is winnable—or for a President who lets his advisers and party blame a general for their own lack of political nerve.

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