WaPo: White House forgot that they told McChrystal to defeat the Taliban

To set the scene, this comes from the October 8 war room meeting on Afghanistan, with McChrystal teleconferenced in from Kabul to explain what he’d been doing since receiving his orders in March. Smart power:

In June, McChrystal noted, he had arrived in Afghanistan and set about fulfilling his assignment. His lean face, hovering on the screen at the end of the table, was replaced by a mission statement on a PowerPoint slide: “Defeat the Taliban. Secure the Population.”

“Is that really what you think your mission is?” one of the participants asked.

In the first place, it was impossible — the Taliban were part of the fabric of the Pashtun belt of southern Afghanistan, culturally if not ideologically supported by a major part of the population. “We don’t need to do that,” Gates said, according to one participant. “That’s an open-ended, forever commitment.”

But that was precisely his mission, McChrystal responded, enshrined in the Strategic Implementation Plan — the execution orders for the March strategy, written by the NSC staff.

“I wouldn’t say there was quite a ‘whoa’ moment,” a senior defense official said of the reaction around the table. “It was just sort of a recognition that, ‘Duh, that’s what in effect the commander understands he’s been told to do.’ Everybody said, ‘He’s right.'”

“It was clear that Stan took a very literal interpretation of the intent” of the NSC document, said Jones, who had signed the orders himself. “I’m not sure that in his position I wouldn’t have done the same thing, as a military commander.” But what he created in his assessment “was obviously something much bigger, and more longer-lasting . . . than we had intended.”

They told him — in his official orders — to come up with a plan to eliminate the enemy and, dummy that he is, he thought that meant he was supposed to come up with a plan to eliminate the enemy. Then they told him he didn’t have to. Six months later.

They held another war room meeting the next day, this time with The One himself in attendance:

On Oct. 9, after awaking to the news that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama listened to McChrystal’s presentation. The “mission” slide included the same words: “Defeat the Taliban.” But a red box had been added beside it, saying that the mission was being redefined, Jones said. Another participant recalled that the word “degrade” had been proposed to replace “defeat.”

Already briefed on the previous day’s discussion, the president “looked at it and said, ‘To be fair, this is what we told the commander to do. Now, the question is, have we directed him to do more than what is realistic? Should there be a sharpening . . . a refinement?’ ” one participant recalled.

So it goes for our supposedly Spock-like president, who made such a pageant during the the past three months of deliberating over Afghanistan lest he waste time and lives by rashly adopting the wrong strategy. He wanted to show his commitment to the war early on, so he installed McChrystal, handed him 22,000 extra troops, stuck him with orders he either didn’t think carefully about or didn’t believe were feasible (Bush-lite?), and then forgot about it for half a year while he went off to chase his health-care dreams. Even more surreally, the only way McChrystal could have misunderstood the orders is if he’d had so little contact with people at the top — Obama, Gates, and Jones — that the occasion never arose for them to clarify that “defeat the Taliban” actually meant “degrade the Taliban.” Remember in September when he said he’d only had one teleconference with The One since taking over in Afghanistan in June? I guess this is the result. Question: How come closing Gitmo was such an urgent priority that Obama sent down the word literally two days after his inauguration, but appointing McChrystal and getting him started on a full strategic review — which would necessarily take weeks — had to wait until late March?

Speaking of confusion, here’s Jones telling the BBC that while some token withdrawal will begin in July 2011, ain’t no way, no chance, no how we’re leaving the country that year. Someone had better tell the left. Click the image to watch.