Admiral Mullen appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing heading towards a second two-year term, two days after the first session dedicated to the strategy. In his statement, the admiral refers to the strategy suggested by McChrystal and he adds that this “probably means more forces”.
When Obama heard about Mullen´s testimony, he let his staff know how unhappy he was knowing that Mullen was publicly endorsing McChrystal´s strategy. The admiral stated that “The Taliban insurgency grows in both size and complexity”, and that was why he was supporting a properly resourced, classically pursued counterinsurgency efforts. Had Mullen ignored what Obama said just two days earlier? Had the President not told everyone, including Mullen, that none of the options looked good, that they needed to challenge their assumptions, and they were going to have four or five long sessions for debate? What was the president´s principal military adviser doing, going public with his preventive conclusions?
At the meeting of the principal members of the National Security Council it was clear that they were furious. The generals and admirals are systematically playing him, boxing him.
Emmanuel commented that what was going on between the admiral and Petraeus was not right, that everyone had publicly supported the idea that more troops needed to be sent. The president didn´t even had a chance.
Morrell realized that Mullen could have ducked the controversy at his hearing by merely saying that his job was to be the principal military adviser to the president of the United States and secretary of the defence, and that he was to present his recommendations to them first in private before stating them publicly and that he didnt consider it to be proper to share them before the Committee.
Morrell thought this was all part of Mullen´s compulsion to communicate, to enhance the prominence and stature of his position. He had a Facebook page, a Twitter account, videos on YouTube and a Web site called “Travels with Mullen: Conversation with the Country”.
As he left the lobby, Mullen himself discovered that it was he who was the topic of a heated powwow.
Emmanuel and Donilon asked him: How are we supposed to deal with this? You did this, and what should we say?
Emmanuel added that this was going to be the lead storied in all the evening news.
Mullen was surprised. The White House knew in advance what he was going to say, but in his testimony he hadn´t given any specific numbers for troops. He was as fuzzy as he could be. But at his confirmation hearing he had to say the truth and the truth was that he was sharing the idea about the need for counterinsurgency. “That´s what I think”, he said. What was his alternative?
Donilon was wondering why Mullen had had to use the word ‘probably’, and why he hadn´t said ‘I don´t know’. That would have been better.
The headline on the Washington Post´s frontpage the next morning read: “Mullen: More Troops ‘Probably’ Needed”.
Obama summoned the retired General Collin Powell to a private meeting in the Oval Office on September 16. Powell had given Obama an important endorsement during his campaign.
Referring to Afghanistan, Powell told him that it wasn´t a one-time decision that was going to have consequences for the better part of his administration. He recommended: “Mr. President, don´t get pushed by the left to do nothing. Don´t get pushed by the right to do everything. You take your time and you figure it out.”
He also recommended not to get pushed by the media, to take his time, get all the information he needed to ensure that afterwards he was going to feel comfortable with his decision.
“If you decide to send more troops or if that´s what you feel is necessary, make sure you have a good understanding what those troops are going to be doing some assurance that additional troops will be successful. You can´t guarantee success in a very complex theatre like Afghanistan and increasingly with the Pakistan problem next-door.”
“You´ve got to ensure that you´re putting your commitment on a solid base, because at the base is a little soft right now.”, Powell said, referring to Karzai and the generalized corruption existing in his government.
The president wasn´t fully backing a counterinsurgency operation because that meant assuming the responsibility for Afghanistan for a long period of time.
The president said that when he received McChrystal´s assessment it was evident that everyone had to get together in a room to ensure that everyone was on the same page.
On September 29, Jones assembled the princials of the National Security Council for a two-hour discussion as a rehearsal for the meeting the next day, without the president.
Anyone who would have watched a video of the meeting would probably be alarmed. Eight years after starting the war, they were still struggling to define what the core of the objectives were.
Biden had written a six-page memo exclusively for the president, questioning the intelligence reports on the Taliban. The reports portrayed the Taliban as the new Al Qaeda. Because the Taliban who had fought against the Americans, it had become common for the Arabs, Uzbeks, Tayiks and Chechens to cross over towards Afghanistan for their so-called summer of jihad.
Biden pointed out that these numbers were exaggerated, that the number of foreign combatants did not surpass 50 to 75 each time.
On Wednesday September 30th, the president held the second meeting to analyze the problem of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This time the attending group was larger. Petraeus was present.
The president asked: “Is there anybody here who thinks we ought to leave Afghanistan?” Nobody spoke. Nobody said a word.
“Okay”, the president said, “now that we´ve dispensed with, let´s get on.”
Obama also wanted to steer away from the Afghanistan issue for the rest of the session.
“Let´s start where our interests take us, which is really Pakistan, not Afghanistan”, he said. “In fact, you can tell the Pakistani leaders, if you want to, that we are not leaving Afghanistan.”
Obama set the rules for the rest of the session. “I really want to focus on the issue of the U.S. homeland. I see three key goals. One, protecting U.S. homeland, allies and U.S. interests abroad. Two, the concern about Pakistan´s nuclear weapons and stability. If I´m just focused on the U.S. homeland, can we distinguish between the dangers posed by al Qaeda and the Taliban?
Lavoy and Petraeus spoke. MacChrystal gave a presentation about what he called “The Pathway” towards his initial assessment.
Obama stated: “Okay. You guys have done your job, but there are three developments since them. The Pakistanis are doing better; the Afghanistan situation is much more serious than anticipated; and the Afghan elections did not provide the pivot point hoped for – a more legitimate government”.
Biden was favouring the assumption, contested by the president, that Pakistan would evolve the same way Afghanistan had.
Robert Gates proposed keeping in mind the interests abroad and the allies.
Towards the end of the meeting, Hillary asked how the additional troops would be used, where they would be sent, if they were going as advisors and how the lessons learned in Iraq would be applied.
The intelligence analyses at the most senior level were never conclusive about action in Afghanistan at this time. A completely destabilized Afghanistan would, sooner or later, destabilize Pakistan. Thus, the question facing the president and his team was this: Could the United States take on this risk?
Gates met with Haqqani, the Pakistani ambassador in the US. He had to deliver an explicit message from the president: We are not pulling out of Afghanistan. Haqqani unfurled a shopping list of gear and vehicles that the Pakistani army needed. Congress had given them a 400 million dollars fund in May to pay for the improvements to Pakistan´s counterinsurgency arsenal. Haqqani brought up the 1,6 billion that America owed the Pakistani military for conducting operations along the Afghan border. After September 11th, the U.S. set up an expense account for Pakistan and other countries called the Coalition Support Fund; from this fund the allies were reimbursed for the assistance they provided.
Obama met with a bipartisan group of about 30 congressional leaders to update them on the strategy review.
A number of legislators criticized the counterterrorism approach that Biden had been advocating. They interpreted it as a way of reducing the U.S. presence.
Biden made it clear that he wasn´t defending a policy that would imply an operation carried out only with the use of Special Troops.
The president had to make it clear that nobody was talking about abandoning Afghanistan