The last few hours have been a flurry of news reports on the President’s supposed decision on troop levels for Afghanistan. First, CBS News reported that the president planned to send roughly 40,000 troops to Afghanistan for about four years. Then, CNN reported that the White House angrily denied CBS News’ assertions, with two unnamed “senior administration officials” accusing Pentagon sources of leaking the story to set expectations and box the president into executing what’s essentially McChrystal’s preferred plan. Now, ABC News reports that, while the president has apparently not made a final decision, all five of the options now on the table would send more troops to Afghanistan.
There are a few explanations for the mixed signals. The first could be that some staff flunkie at the Pentagon wanted to impress a reporter and phoned in a tip before they knew what they were talking about, prompting an angry response from a White House still settling on options, all of which involve more troops. The second is slightly more sinister: elements in the Pentagon could be attempting to force the president’s hand, which would be a very subversive move and an assault on civilian control of the military. The third explanation is even darker: that the administration is more unified than it appears, and that it’s using leaks about high-end troop level estimates to desensitize the public and position the president’s inevitable, smaller troop increase as the more reasonable option. None of these explanations provide much comfort.
The simple truth is that even if one grants all the administration’s other assumptions about war and international politics (which I certainly do not), the troops are just not available for anything remotely approaching McChrystal’s preferred way forward, and certainly not within the critical period mentioned by his strategy paper. Spencer Ackerman:
The thing is, can we actually get 34,000 new troops into Afghanistan before summer of 2010? Remember that in the McChrystal strategy review, completed in late August, the commanding general talks about a window of about 12-18 month wherein he’ll know if he can arrest Taliban momentum. (That’s different, notice, than rolling back Taliban gains.)
Ackerman points to Politics Daily, which notes:
Maintaining one brigade combat team in the field requires two others on standby. So, for every unit in combat, planners keep a second one in training and a third one in “reset” after a long combat deployment – time when the Army can send its soldiers off for advanced schooling, absorb new replacements, receive new gear. Thus, a total of three BCTs are tied up.
Just to maintain the 16 current brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan is, let’s see, three times 16 is 48 and – oops! We’re already out of BCTs! And here’s the White House blithely batting around numbers like 40,000 more troops. That’s roughly eight BCTs, which do not exist.
One of the only ways available to provide the levels of troops needed for anything remotely approaching a McChrystal plan would be to shorten dwell time at home for troops. That would be, in short, a mental health disaster. As PD notes,
Tragically, and despite an all-out prevention effort, the Army is experiencing another record-setting year for suicides. From January through September this year there were 117 reported suicides among active duty soldiers, up from 108 reported during the same period in 2008.
This is why, as Robert Naiman notes, the Joint Chiefs are begging the president not to do anything to shorten dwell times at home. Shorter dwell times means more mental health problems, period. The fact that troops “volunteered” (which is a rather flexible term in many situations) does not give the government the right to use them up until they break their brains. See how long your beloved “all-volunteer force” lasts when future recruits see that you’re shoving them into overseas hell holes over and over with shorter recovery periods between nightmares. At some point basic human dignity demands we end this farce.
I have to admit a certain level of exhaustion as a member of the anti-war movement focused on Afghanistan, especially when the debate moves into a place where our opponents start sputtering, “Well what’s your alternative?!” as if the options they push are reasonable and moored to the real resources available. The simple fact is that a person pushing for anything resembling a McChrystal strategy either a) has no clue as to the manpower restraints on the U.S. military or b) doesn’t give a damn about the mental health of the people they want to throw into combat. In fact, they don’t even understand fully McChrystal’s reasoning because key sections of his report were redacted for public consumption. A person asking me what my alternative is to troop increases in Afghanistan might as well be asking what my alternative is to firing the Death Star at Kandahar.
I don’t have to know how to construct a working safety belt to demand the recall of a car with a defective safety belt. I don’t have to know how to fashion a health reform bill to know that the health care system is broken and to demand that my elected representatives do something other than endorse the status quo. And I sure don’t have to be able to plot out the detailed exit strategy for our forces in Afghanistan to be able to say with integrity that we shouldn’t have our military tramping around someone else’s country killing people.
What I do know is this: every single person I’ve heard the president cite as a moral and philosophical guiding light, from Jesus of Nazareth, to Gandhi, to Martin Luther King, Jr., to Cesar Chavez, to Reinhold Niebuhr, would reject the idea that the U.S. should be dropping bombs on people in Afghanistan in the pursuit of U.S. national security. Every single one. The president probably knows this too, and only the most cynical politician would continue to drop these names at campaign stops and press conferences while ordering more and more troops to fight and die and kill in Asia.
That’s enough now, Mr. President. Stop this war.