The Cable

Top Pentagon official: McChrystal's report is just "one input"

A senior Pentagon official said today that the leaked assessment of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which says that "mission failure" is a serious risk unless more U.S. troops are sent to Afghanistan, is just "one input" into the administration's thinking, as another senior administration source directly blamed McChrystal's shop for the surprising leak and suggested that the general, who was installed by President Obama's team in June, is out ahead of the White House over the resourcing of the Afghan war.

Michèle Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy, who has a high-level role in crafting the administration's new approach to the war, spoke with FP about McChrystal's document, how it fits into the larger Afghan policy review within the Obama administration, and the way forward for the international effort in Afghanistan in an exclusive interview with The Cable.

Flournoy, seeking to put the general's assessment in context, said that McChrystal's call for more troops would be only one of several factors that President Obama would consider when he makes his final decision.

"The McChrystal assessment is one input, one very important input, into a larger conversation that the president is having on where we go on Afghanistan," said Flournoy, who called it "a starting point" for the discussion.

Assessments from combatant commanders, the joint staff, and comments from Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates have now all been forwarded to Obama for his perusal, Flournoy said, adding that there is now an interagency discussion going on involving the president and his principals.

Some assessments are being revised in the wake of Afghan election, which is still in turmoil after reports of widespread fraud and vote rigging, Flournoy said.

"You have an uncertain outcome; you have some new challenges that have come out of how that process has gone. And so there will be other political assessments, other assessments, coming into that discussion from places outside the Pentagon," said Flournoy.

Obama's initial addition of 21,000 new troops to Afghanistan were sent to provide security for the elections, to prepare for the summer fighting season, and "as a down payment" on the new strategy announced in March, said Flournoy. Further reviews after the March announcement were always planned and that's what going on now, she added.

The president is setting aside large blocks of time for meetings on Afghanistan policy "over the coming weeks," said Flournoy, indicating that policy watchers shouldn't expect a decision any time soon.

"We want to make sure that the decision is strategy driven, that the president has the space to take all the inputs to make the best possible choice."

That long period of contemplation is exactly what's got lawmakers and members of the military in Afghanistan uneasy, especially after Obama said Sunday he was skeptical of putting more American men and women in harm's way.

One Pentagon source said that the leak of the assessment probably came from McChrystal's staff and represented an increased effort by counterinsurgency-focused officers in theater to pressure the administration to raise troop levels, in light of what they see as Obama's wobbling on the issue.

At the top levels of the administration, there's a feeling that McChrystal's assessment is getting too much play in the process and in the media. The White House wanted to come to a decision on its own terms, but now all attention is centered on McChrystal.

The White House fears a repeat of the 2007 Iraq debate, when then Iraq commander General David Petraeus came to Washington "like he was bringing tablets down from the mountain," and then Congress enshrined his views, which became policy over the objections of some of the higher up military leadership.

"If they had to do it all over again, they would probably seek McChrystal's views in a less formal way," the source said.

Meanwhile, Flournoy said there are some things that could be done now, even before the final decision on a strategy is made.

"Everybody seems to be talking about growing the Afghan Nation Security Forces [ANSF]. So without deciding exactly how fast and how far, there might be some things you want to do to enable that in the fiscal 2010 appropriations bill," that's moving through Congress now,  she said.

The Senate Appropriations Committee recently reduced the administration's request for growing the Afghan forces by $900 million in its version of the bill, saying that the Defense Department simply can't spend all the money it has requested in the designated time period.

"There are issues of absorption capacity across the board in Afghanistan. ... I think some of this we won't have firm answers to in time to affect the bill, and we'll have to live with the consequences of that in terms of managing and reprogramming," said Flournoy, "On ANSF, we want to position ourselves to grow the force faster. I can't imagine any strategy option in which that's not going to be a part of it."

Flournoy also responded to criticism from lawmakers in both parties and both chambers about the metrics the administration shared with them last week, which presumably would be used to measure progress in Afghanistan and which the administration was compelled by law to devise and distribute.

"On the metrics, what we've done is laid out a series of areas ... that were the major muscle movements of what we need to do in Afghanistan," she said, "Now underneath those are a number of specific indicators that the intelligence community will be asked to look at in support of coming to overall judgments in these areas."

The first actual report on the metrics won't be until the new year, according to Flournoy, at which point the administration will be able to discuss the details with Congress more substantively.

Flournoy said there's no decision yet on whether the administration will let McChrystal testify directly to lawmakers in open session, as many senior senators are calling for.

File photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Cable

Webb on Asia: the extended-play version

Last week, we brought you Sen. Jim Webb's response to critics of his drive to influence U.S. Burma policy as the new head of the Senate Foreign Relations Asia subcommittee. Well, Webb isn't just interested in Burma. He plans to use his perch to examine U.S. policy regarding each and every Asian country, and his thirst for diplomatic activism is far from quenched.

Here are some additional excerpts from Webb's exclusive interview with The Cable, covering his views on several countries in the region:

On the U.S. approach to China:

"Our relationship with China is obviously the most complex relationship that we have, because on one hand we are strategically vulnerable to a mishandling of that relationship and on the other hand, China is a huge trading partner and also in many ways our bankers. So the more dialogue, including healthy confrontation we have with China, the better off we're all going to be, and the better off that region's going to be too, by the way."

On countering China's expanding influence in Asia:

"I don't think we've been clear enough with China or with the other countries in the region about the balance that needs to be maintained. ... It's healthy for us to maintain a vigorous dialogue with the Chinese in areas where we've been silent for a long time, particularly sovereignty issues such as us operating in the South China Sea.

China is sitting on trillions of dollars and cash right now and since the economic crisis began about a year ago they have been aggressively spending that cash, particularly on resources, in the region and also in South America and Africa, etc. ... They're putting their cash out in ways that are designed to continue their future growth at a very rapid pace. And we need to stay vigorously involved in these countries... we are such an important part of the balance in the region, that's the bottom line.

In a lot of these countries, they all want to prosper, they all want investment, but you reach a certain point where you become vulnerable if you don't also have a counter balance. That's one thing that I'm seeing very clearly in the region right now. ... The countries in the region want to see a counterbalance, they want to see us stay and we need to stay.

We need to be engaged in more than a military sense. They tend to look at us in terms of a military guarantor, but we need to get our economic investment in an upswing in that part of the world."

On Japan's new government:

"The U.S.-Japanese relationship has in some ways been diminished in the public eye because of the expansion of China. ... It's going to be interesting to see how this plays out, whether this just a period where the Japanese people just reflect and try to figure out what the next stage is going to be or whether they are ready for some sort of dramatic change.

Even though this party [the DPJ] has never been in control, some of the personalities are people who have been involved in responsible politics for a very long time. So the next four or five months are going to be very interesting."

On the U.S. approach to Taiwan:

"The Taiwanese themselves are pretty dramatically split on their political future. Their economic involvement with China has obviously increased significantly, but there's still a large percentage of the people of Taiwan who believe they should not politically be unified with China.

One of the issues I have tried to put on the table in a larger context are the sovereignty issues in the South China Sea, which include the Senkaku Islands, which have multiple sovereignty claims. And those kinds of issues are not going to go away, even if, or when Taiwan joins politically with China. In fact, if we don't have the right counterbalance, they are actually going to accentuate over the next few years.

The United States has an obligation to ensure that Taiwan is not forcibly united with China."

On his role as subcommittee chair:

"I need to do what I can to help reinvigorate the relationship between the United States and particularly East and Southeast Asia, and to bring that region more clearly up on the radar screen of the average American.

There are two phenomena occurring right now, almost by default. One is the constant tendency to think of Asia in terms of China in the United States. And the second is a focus on the island countries around the rim of East and Southeast Asia, as opposed to the countries on the Southeast Asian mainland.

I have a strong feeling that we [the United States] are an Asian nation in every sense of the word, culturally, historically. ... Our presence there has oscillated over the generations, but it's a very important place to be and we are neglecting it.

We're not showing up in this region, and we need to. It's a very vital place in the world in terms of U.S. interests and they need to know we want to continue to be there."

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images