The Logic of an Afghan Policy Leak

Why would the White House divulge details of a secret war-strategy session? To force the Pentagon's hand

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Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama holds a briefing on Afghanistan with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Situation Room at the White House on Oct. 30, 2009.

In matters of war and peace, presidents expect their generals to give their best advice in private, keep it private and then faithfully carry out the Commander in Chief's decisions. But whenever wars sour and casualties mount, the perspectives of the White House and the Pentagon brass clash, the military lets its real views be known, and the public-policy brawls erupt. A new round of brawls looms over Afghanistan, and this one could be particularly costly.

This time the trigger is a couple of leaks from the most secret and sensitive White House meetings on Afghan policy. The disclosures can be found in Jonathan Alter's The Promise: President Obama, Year One, which has just been published, and will also appear in Bob Woodward's book about Obama due out this fall. They show Obama, much like a prosecutor, nailing down his generals' support for the U.S. troop withdrawals he would soon announce and trying to stanch the expected opposition. That opposition, the White House is well aware, could be a political killer for Obama, given the military's unmatchable public credibility. The two leaks — in Alter's case, quotations from an Oval Office discussion, and in Woodward's, actual notes from National Security Council meetings — almost certainly came from senior White House officials, likely with Obama's approval. The exchanges make the President look strong and the military defensive.

The battle between the new President and the Pentagon started last year when the generals asked for thousands more troops for Afghanistan than the White House wanted to deploy.

Last fall, Obama thought he had quieted the brass with a trade-off: he'd meet their demand for 30,000-plus more soldiers (bringing the total to about 100,000), and they'd back his call to begin troop reductions in July 2011. He soon sensed, however, that he'd have to do more to ensure the generals kept their end of the deal. The military still cringed at any hint of a deadline, arguing to fight longer with the full complement of troops in place.

The dramatic Oval Office confrontation cited by Alter came just days before Obama was to announce both the 30,000 force add-ons and the July 2011 date to begin reductions. Attendees included Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, Centcom commander General David Petraeus and National Security Adviser James Jones:

"Obama asked Petraeus, 'David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?'

'Sir, I'm confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame,' the general replied.

'Good. No problem,' the President said. 'If you can't do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?'

'Yes, sir, in agreement,' Petraeus said.

'Yes, sir,' Mullen said.

The President was crisp but informal. 'Bob, you have any problems?' he asked Gates, who said he was fine with it.

The President then encapsulated the new policy: in quickly, out quickly; focus on al-Qaeda, and build the Afghan army. 'I'm not asking you to change what you believe, but if you don't agree with me that we can execute this, say so now,' he said. No one said anything.

'Tell me now,' Obama repeated.

'Fully support, sir,' Mullen said.

'Ditto,' Petraeus said."

The White House leaked these conversations in part to show the world that the generals agreed to the July 2011 timetable last fall, whatever doubts they may have about it now. The military will surely be angered by the leaks and may be tempted to retaliate; most officers aren't crazy about Democrats or about Obama.

This is nasty business by all parties. Yet I have to believe that the leaked accounts are essentially true. They parallel my own conversations with senior officers. Whatever Alter suggests, the military didn't and doesn't agree to extracting all the troops in 18 months or any time frame, nor does the White House make that claim.

But whatever the generals really believe now about Afghan policy, they have had their full say, gotten most of the troops they requested and fought the war essentially their way. It's the President's responsibility to make the final calls — and to create a force-reduction strategy for Afghanistan that protects what will remain of America's interests there. The generals can and should help him do that. After 10 years of war in Afghanistan, American arms, men, women and treasure are needed far more elsewhere.

Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is the author of Power Rules and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations