The “double envelopment” or pincer movement is a classic military maneuver that finds the flanks of the opponent under simultaneous attack from the opposing forces. The maneuver may have been used as early as the Battle of Marathon in the fifth century BC, and there are accounts of Hannibal using the double envelopment at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC. Gen. Robert E. Lee used the technique successfully in the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862, when the Confederate forces threatened the lines of communication between the Union forces and the political leadership in Washington. The German Sixth Army was a victim of double envelopment at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, and Gen. George Patton used the technique successfully against German forces in World War II.
Now, President Barack Obama finds himself the victim of a political double envelopment in which the Pentagon, having ostensibly agreed to a strategy calling for discussion of withdrawal from Afghanistan, is already campaigning and planning for an extended stay. On one flank, the Pentagon is undertaking a huge base expansion program that will support a regional military strategy against Russia, China and Iran. On the other flank, the senior military leadership is walking away from any notion of even gradual withdrawal beginning in 2011.
President Obama seemed reluctant last year when he announced his decision to enlarge the US military presence in Afghanistan. He demonstrated his uncertainty by combining the decision to send an additional 30,000 soldiers and Marines with a commitment to begin discussions for withdrawal in December of this year in order to begin a withdrawal process in July 2011. Vice President Joe Biden strongly opposed the decision to expand the force presence, but he was outflanked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who received predictably strong support from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and senior general officers.
Now, one general after another is walking away from any discussion of a major review of policy, let alone withdrawal, with on-the-record comments in support of an extended stay in Afghanistan. The Pentagon’s campaign began two weeks with Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, arguing that he had not come to Afghanistan to preside over a “graceful exit.” General Petraeus indicated that his support for any decision to begin the withdrawal of forces next summer would depend on how the war was proceeding. He presumably believes that he can repeat the success of the surge in Iraq, which he campaigned for in 2007.
In the wake of General Petraeus’ remarks, Gen. James Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said that President Obama’s July 2011 deadline to begin US troop withdrawal was “giving our enemy sustenance.” General Conway seemed to be particularly dismissive of any discussion of withdrawal, noting that President Obama was “talking to several audiences at the same time when he made his comments regarding July 2011.” The US commander in charge of training Afghan security forces, Gen. William Caldwell IV, told Pentagon reporters on August 23 that he will not complete his mission of training an Afghan force until after the deadline. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen has been the most aggressive military leader in making the case for a long-term commitment to Afghanistan. And General McChrystal probably should have been fired for insubordination in the fall of 2009 when he rejected the idea of using drone aircraft and special forces to defeat al-Qaeda before a final decision had been made.
This is very much different from the private comments of the military leadership to President Obama last year when he conducted his high-level review of Afghan policy. In the Oval Office in October 2009, Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen pledged their support to President Obama’s plan and committed themselves to making sure that Generals McChrystal and Petraeus would stop their public discussion of the policy debate. Vice Chairman of the JCS, Gen. James Cartwright, also pledged fealty. And in late November, only days before the West Point speech, President Obama asked General Petraeus if he was certain of progress over the next 18 months that would allow the withdrawal to begin in 2011. Gates, Mullen and Petraeus agreed that it could be done and that the Afghan Army could take over the mission at that time.
The pace of US military construction in Afghanistan certainly does not suggest an interest or expectation of an early withdrawal. Major expansion is taking place at three US air bases in southern and northern Afghanistan and none of these projects is expected to be completed before the latter part of 2011. In other words, long after President Obama has pledged to begin the withdrawal of US forces, the Pentagon is allocating hundreds of millions of dollars for air bases in key regions. The House of Representatives has already approved more than $1 billion for additional base construction in addition to the more than $5 billion allocated to build facilities for the Afghan Army and the national police. Neither Afghan institution has demonstrated that it can maintain security in the country, let alone take on the growing Taliban forces.
President Obama has learned some harsh lessons about civilian-military relations over the past year. The secretary of defense and the Pentagon’s military leadership are working energetically to undermine the president’s call for an end to the cynical policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which undermined the role of gays serving in the military. When the Obama administration was discussing Afghan policy at the highest levels last year, senior general officers campaigned for a significant expansion of US forces long before any decision was actually made. General McChrystal was eventually forced to resign as commander of US forces in Afghanistan because he and his staff were contemptuous toward civilian decision makers.
The president denied that he was “jammed” by the military in the fall of 2009 when the toughest decision of his presidency had to be made. It is clear, however, that the military is trying to manipulate President Obama on the next round of decision making. It was 50 years ago that President Dwight D. Eisenhower told his senior advisers, “God help this country when someone sits in this chair who doesn’t know the military as well as I do.”