October 14, 2009

Mullen's Treadmill from Hell

Imagine a treadmill that never ended, an intentionally broken treadmill. The display reads 12-18 months and the two numbers never change. You never move anywhere, have no countdown, just 12-18 more months on the treadmill. Forever.

“I think with the troops that we put on the ground there, that over the next 12 to 18 months, we have to dramatically change the security situation and stem the tide,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Michael Mullen told reporters in May while rolling out President Obama’s new “Afpak” strategy.

Strange, because he repeated this assessment in June - “It's important to start to turn the tide in the next 12 to 18 months” - July, August, and September - “I do believe we have to start to turn this thing around from a security standpoint over the next 12 to 18 months.”

As if time doesn’t exist in Afghanistan.

Perhaps Mullen innocently forgot to turn off the treadmill, but repeating the same line to such a degree is comically obvious. He was fulfilling his part of the “Afpak” strategy by creating breathing room for President Obama. The problem with words, however, is that reality washes them away.

Mullen often accompanied this 12-18 month window with, “I would look to 2009 and 2010 to be incredibly important years in Afghanistan... the Taliban is much better organized than they were before.” 2009 is almost over though, leaving 2010 all alone.

“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," General McChrystal wrote in his review.

Except 12 months is more like 6-12 months, a critical difference.

Furthermore, troops aren’t launched all at once like a rocket. Obama’s newest troops took until fall to fully deploy and 20,000-40,000 troops will similarly take a year, to say nothing of actually improving security. Mullen hasn’t given his shtick in October, but he’s liable to announce a 12 month window when that window is nearly closed.

This treadmill doesn’t just ramble on endlessly, it halts too and you have to stand for a while. In June Mullen claimed he had enough forces and, “I think we have the right strategy,” while Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in early September that Obama, “has the right approach to begin making some headway.” He even countered that Afghanistan isn’t slipping despite the dire warnings from his counterpart.

Mullen had told CNN’s State of the Union in late August, “I think it is serious and it is deteriorating and I’ve said that over the past couple of years that the Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated, in their tactics.”

Why, if Obama has the right strategy, is the White House, Congress, and Pentagon frozen on Afghanistan? Where is the headway in Afghanistan? Is General McChrystal lying when orders more troops? Afghanistan is clearly slipping and the right strategy is just as slippery. Some people just don’t want us to think that way, don’t want us to move.

The treadmill does move though, sometimes when you least expect. President Obama squashed the notion of leaving Afghanistan, sputtering the treadmill to life again. 13,000 support soldiers are being deployed, another lurch. The belt picks up speed. Obama recently revealed he would make his decision in the coming weeks, but what doubt can there be?

A simple addition problem: those favoring escalation include General McChrystal, General Petraeus, Admiral Mullen, Secretary Gates, and Secretary Clinton. Obama, by staying in Afghanistan, adds himself to the equation. He’s going to deploy more troops, Karzai or not, whether 10,000 or 40,000. 10,000 is sure to keep the treadmill running strong, undermanned as America still is.

In the event that 40,000 additional troops are deployed (no sooner than 2010), Obama and the Pentagon are likely to utilize a similar formula to their first rollout in March. 18 months will be gone and 2010 will be the year, 12 months to go whether 10 or 3 months remain. Yet a turnaround in one year is so improbable that pushing 2011 could be the new slogan. Many people may not notice.

“It's important to start to turn the tide in 2010 and 2011,” rolls right off the tongue.

It should go without saying that Afghanistan is a treadmill, sometimes speeding up, sometimes coming to a crash, but always picking up again, never ending. How long will the American people, let alone Afghans and Pakistanis, have to keep running?

12-18 months.

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