THE PLANK DECEMBER 18, 2009
As I mentioned earlier, I spent a few days this week in Afghanistan with Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Michael Mullen. A breakneck schedule didn't allow for as much time with ground troops as I would have liked. But I did get a chance to ask some how about the Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy review process. With the the review process dragging through meeting after meeting this fall, you'll remember, conservatives hammered Obama for "dithering" that was supposedly demoralizing the troops. But in my conversations with soldiers in Kandahar Province yesterday, I found no evidence for that. The Army battalion at Forward Operating Base Frontenac north of Kandahar city saw a battalion that has seen 21 KIA since August, with most of those deaths coming after General Stanley McChrystal submitted his strategy review. But I didn't get the sense that the troops of the First Battallion 17th Infantry were railing about dithering as they left the wire in their Stryker vehicles. "We knew there was a debate, [but] it almost becomes white noise for you here." the battalion's very impressive commander, Jonathan Neumann, a bald-headed bull of a guy from Montana, told me. "We've been fighting since 9/11 with political debate echoing in the background."
I asked a couple of Neumann's men the same question off the record (and out of earshot from their commander), but neither one took the Kristol-Krauthammer line. They said their concern in the late summer and fall had been making sure their Stryker wasn't hit by a roadside bomb. (One massive November 10 blast completely destroyed a Stryker, killing an entire seven-man squad.)
My sense from the handful of town hall discussions Admiral Mullen had with troops this week is that our troops are more concerned about whether Obama's July 2011 date to start withdraw troops means we're not in it to win it, and also--running contrary to that--whether their deployments will be extended and their "dwell time" at home will shrink. (Mullen says no.)
It's clear that some Pentagon officials in Washington were frustrated by the time Obama spent reaching his final decision. Some troops here on the ground ay well have felt the same way. But I just didn't hear that complaint myself.
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