Strategy Is More Important Than Any Individual

We can all agree on that, right? No matter what anyone’s take is on the merits of the administration’s strategy or any alternative strategy for Afghanistan? Pro, con, nuanced, conflicted, etc.: Strategy is what matters most?

Then check out Robert Gibbs’s press conference. There is no indication from the briefing that Obama intends on changing his strategy in Afghanistan.

“Personality disagreements aside, we’re here to implement a new strategy” for the nine-year Afghanistan war, Gibbs repeatedly said. He emphasized that all senior officials and military leaders, including McChrystal, had an opportunity to contribute during the fall debate over strategy, and all left those meetings pledging to support and implement that agenda. “Over the course of many weeks, the strategy was refined and developed, which every member of the team pledged to implement, and agreed with that strategy,” Gibbs said. “That’s what we want everybody from the ambassador from the combatant commander to anybody else involved with this to focus on.”

The issue with McChrystal, as Gibbs laid it out, is about fidelity to the strategy and the rest of the team implementing it. He’ll have an opportunity to make his case to President Obama tomorrow that he’s able to do that. But that exposes the biggest irony here. Gibbs said that the responsibility of team members is “not to relitigate” the policy debate of the fall. But notice: McChrystal never once relitigated it in the Rolling Stone profile. Why would he? After all, he got every significant thing he wanted from the fall strategy debate. You never see McChrystal complain about July 2011 or not being sufficiently resourced or the rest of the team’s commitment or blah blah blah. That would be relitigating the strategy.

Now, as I wrote earlier, at the heart of the strategy is a compromise for what happens after July 2011: less McChrystal and COIN (not none, but less); more Caldwell and training; and more Biden and counterterrorism-and-Pakistan focus. McChrystal signed onto that, even if the degrees to which each will balance each other and the pace at which they will de-emphasize the former and emphasize the latter have yet to be fully instantiated. Perhaps Gibbs was sending McChrystal a message that future relitigation, after 2011, won’t be tolerated — if McChrystal makes it as commander after tomorrow.

But nothing Gibbs said gave any indication that the strategy itself is about to be overhauled.

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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