Though leaks are bad for the president and the country, they are gifts for journalists and commentators, who often draw their purpose from the failures of others. We have learned that Obama's national security team is both deeply divided and playing for blood. Military-civilian tensions are growing and have become reflected on the ground in Afghanistan. One key to the success of the surge in Iraq was the close cooperation of Gen. David Petraeus, in charge of military operations, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who led the civilian efforts. McChrystal and Eikenberry seem to have a different relationship.
We have also learned that military and civilian timelines are quickly diverging. In his strategy memo sent on Aug. 30, McChrystal warned: "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible." At that time, I talked to administration officials who were hoping the scale-up of troops would begin in earnest before the end of the year. Soon, three months will have passed since McChrystal made his dire assessment -- three months of leaks and recriminations that must give pause to our troops and encouragement to our enemies. While it is important to get a military decision right, it is also possible for the right decision to come too late.
It is not fair that large presidential choices must be made with insufficient time and information, but it is also not unusual. A dysfunctional process on Afghanistan has begun to narrow the range of good outcomes. The time and the options in Afghanistan are limited. "As an analogy," says David Kilcullen, an expert on counterinsurgency strategy, "you have a building on fire, and it's got a bunch of firemen inside. There are not enough firemen to put it out. You have to send in more or you have to leave. It is not appropriate to stand outside pontificating about not taking lightly the responsibility of sending firemen into harm's way. Either put in enough firemen to put the fire out or get out of the house."