Do Gates and McChrystal Have the Guts to Fight for Afghanistan?

General McChrystal’s report on the Afghan War should be required reading for us all. It’s written in plain English and is brutally realistic in its assessment of the current situation. It makes clear that if we continue on the path we’re on, even with the additional 21,000 troops President Obama has already added, we’re headed for certain defeat.

Put simply, the General concludes that President Obama’s stated goal “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future” cannot be accomplished with the current troop levels, resources and military strategy.

Although McChrystal doesn’t ask for more troops in this report, he is expected to do so as early as today. He could ask for as many as 40,000 more troops, in addition to the 68,000 Obama has already committed to the Afghan war. While McChrystal warns that additional troops and resources alone will not guarantee success, it will at least give him the tools necessary to implement a new strategy.

Leaking the McChrystal report to the press, and to the county’s leading investigative reporter, Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, was no accident. The military has now put the ball firmly in President Obama’s court. The McChrystal report leaves no room for ambiguity. If the president is not willing to add more troops, commit more resources, and adopt a different military strategy, he is going against the advice of his highly regarded, handpicked military commander. The inevitable defeat that would follow would be Obama’s to own – politically, strategically, militarily.

The question is what does Obama do with the ball now that he’s got it? As recently as last month President Obama called Afghanistan a “War of Necessity”, in contrast to President Bush’s “War of Choice” in Iraq. He can hardly walk away from the war now.

But accepting McChrystal’s recommendations and ramping up our war efforts will be difficult as well. To do so President Obama faces an uphill battle persuading the American people that this war is worth the effort, and convincing his anti-war political base to go along with it.

If Obama decides to not decide-- in other words to delay or refuse to commit the resources McChrysal has called essential-- what will Gen. McChrystal, his boss Gen. Petraeus, and Secretary of Defense Gates do? Will they resign in protest, or hold their noses and carry out a policy they know is doomed to fail?

After the Vietnam war fiasco, many of our junior military officers said “never again.” Never again would they stand silently by and fight a war they knew would end in disaster. Yet that lesson was forgotten in the aftermath of September 11. Once again, our political leaders were unwilling to commit the troops or resources needed to bring a quick conclusion to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and once again our senior military leadership went along with it. The one military leader who had the courage to call for more troops, Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, was fired by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld for saying so. The message was clear.

For now, the battle lines are being drawn in Washington. A fundamental principle in our Constitution is civilian control of the military. That means our political leaders set the policy and our military leaders recommend to them what resources they need to carry them out. If our military leaders disagree, they have two options-- carry the orders out in silence, or resign in protest.

In the next few days we will learn whether President Obama has the courage to do what what is necessary to prevail in Afghanistan. And he does not, will our military leaders have the courage to resign in protest?

Kathleen Troia “K.T.” McFarland served in national security posts in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan Administrations. She travelled to Afghanistan in May and observed firsthand the shortcomings of our Afghan war policy.