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President Barack Obama's aides say his speech this evening marking the end of "combat operations" in Iraq will avoid the vainglorious aspects of President George W. Bush's infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech in 2003. We'll see.
On the chance Obama might be open to pivoting away from the reduction of U.S. troops in Iraq and addressing honestly the worsening quagmire in Afghanistan. I have offered him the following text:
My Fellow Americans,
" so much for Iraq. Turning now to Afghanistan, let me be clear. My learning curve has been steep, as the New York Times noted last weekend. The curve has also been jagged as I have tried to assimilate the not-always-consistent advice the four-star generals have given me.
It's been more than a little confusing. When I took office, Gen. David McKiernan was running the war in Afghanistan. He had expressed himself openly and strongly against an Iraq-style "surge" of forces, emphasizing that Afghanistan is "a far more complex environment than I ever found in Iraq," where he had led U.S. ground forces.
"The word I don't use for Afghanistan is "surge,'" McKiernan told a news conference on Oct. 1, 2008, singling out for mention the country's rural population and mountainous terrain, which deepen the nation's tribal divisions and weaken national cohesion.
As I was campaigning for president, McKiernan also warned that we could not do Afghanistan on the cheap. Rather, what would be needed was a "sustained commitment" that could last many more years. At the time there were 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan (as compared with close to 100,000 now). McKiernan wanted no more, unless he could count on having them for the longer term with the objective being clear.
So, let me tell you how things changed from then to now. Gen. David Petraeus said he had a better idea, so I let him persuade me to cashier McKiernan after less than a year in Afghanistan and replace him with Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Backed by Gen. Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Gen. McChrystal pushed for a major escalation in Afghanistan. He wanted 40,000 more troops on top of the 21,000 that I had sent in response to an urgent request just after I became president.
If you remember, in fall 2009, I was facing political pressure from the Pentagon and from former Vice President Dick Cheney who accused me of "dithering" while I conducted an Afghan policy review. So, as a compromise of sorts, I agreed to expand the force by 30,000 more soldiers but I said they would start coming home by July 2011.
On the ground, however, Gen. McChrystal made little headway. He could not tame the rural area of Marja even though he sent thousands of Marines there in what was supposed to be a warm-up for a more ambitious campaign to "stabilize " Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city and a Taliban stronghold.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen recently shared with me what he told columnist David Ignatius two months ago; namely, that his generals "underestimated the challenges" in Marja, and now they don't quite know what to do about Kandahar. They weren't even sure how much progress they might or might not be making. "It's going to take until the end of the year to know where we are" there, Admiral Mullen said.
Let me be clear, again. I must tell you that I have increasing doubts that the four-stars who brief me really know what they're doing in Afghanistan. Gen. McChrystal even found a curious way to exit Afghanistan, when he and his top aides were quoted in Rolling Stone magazine disparaging me and the civilian leadership. I then replaced McChrystal with Petraeus.
In an unconventional attempt to climb more quickly up the learning curve, I also traveled incognito to the Army infantry school at Fort Benning, to listen to what the lieutenants and captains are learning about strategy and tactics. It was an eye opener!
Can't Get There From Here
One key teaching point was the importance of what the Army calls the LOC -- the line of communication along which supplies and forces can move between a base and troops in the field.
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