December 2009 Afghanistan Troop Surge Announcement

afghanistan troop announcement - gavin smith - white housePersonality Power Plays Shape New Policy

As of the date of this paper, the Obama Administration has just approved the increase of 30,000 additional troops to be deployed to Afghanistan.  It is an issue of controversy that stems from a recent assessment by General Stanley McChrystal of the current situation in Afghanistan.  With rumblings of Vietnam in the air once again, the decision by President Obama to commit more troops to Afghanistan warrants a closer look at the personalities at play within the power structure of the National Security Council.  These principals contribute to decision-making of any presidency.  According to Gordon Goldstein, author of Lessons in Disaster, former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy once said “if you’re trying to understand how decisions are made, understand where the personalities align around a decision, understand who is going to exercise influence over the president.  And if you can understand the power structure, then you’ll understand the outcome, because that power structure surrounding the president often is more important than the broader strategic argument that’s on the table.” (Goldstein NPR interview) In examining current council members under the current National Security Advisor, two key questions are raised.  Who is most likely to have influenced the current Afghanistan troop surge decision?  In addition, how did Vietnam influence the decision-making process of this key personality on the Council?

The United States has been involved in Afghanistan since 2001 as a response by the former Bush Administration to the terrorist events of 9/11.  The terrorist group Al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, struck the U.S. in New York City and Washington, D.C. after extensive planning at terrorist training camps located inside of Afghanistan.  With the support and protection of the Taliban, Al Qaeda operated freely inside of Afghanistan.  After initially trying to get the Taliban to turn over Al Qaeda to the U.S., the Bush Administration made the decision to go in.  On October 7, less than a month after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, U.S. and British forces begin airstrikes.  Just over a month later, Taliban fighters abandon the capital, leaving it open to takeover by U.S. troops in early December, 2001.  The leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, escapes with Osama bin Laden.  In mid-2002, current head of state Hamid Karzai is elected to a new interim government.  By 2003, NATO troops also enter Afghanistan initially for peacekeeping purposes.  Meanwhile, the Taliban continue to fight an insurgency battle against a steadily increasing number of U.S. and NATO troops over the past six years.  Osama bin Laden remains at large, thought to be in the lawless border region of Waziristan.

At the time President Barack Obama took the oath of office this year, there were a total of 36,000 U.S. troops and 32,000 NATO forces located inside of Afghanistan.  Obama then approved an increase of 17,000 more troops in February and subsequently replaced the top commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, by General Stanley McChrystal.  On order to give a complete and current re-assessment of the Afghanistan situation, McChrystal provides a confidential report in September that delivers a bleak assessment of the situation created over the past eight years, and requests 40,000 additional troops and shifts in strategy.  This request has brought about much criticism from both the left and the right.  As well, polls show that Americans are split evenly over whether to send more troops or withdraw completely.

McChrystal’s assessment pulls no punches.  “The stakes in Afghanistan are high.  NATO’s Comprehensive Strategic Political Military Plan and President Obama’s strategy to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al Qaeda and prevent their return to Afghanistan have laid out a clear path of what we must do.  Stability in Afghanistan is an imperative; if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban – or has insufficient capability to counter transnational terrorists – Afghanistan could again become a base for terrorism, with obvious implications for regional stability.” General McChrystal continually refers to the importance of winning over support of the civilian population throughout the 66 page report.  He also calls for more NATO involvement, the growth of Afghan forces, better governance, prioritization of resources and a redefining of the strategy to gain the initiative. (McChrystal, USFOR-A)  Based on both the assessment by General McChrystal and deliberations with his National Security Council, President Obama approved the deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

To understand how this new decision and strategy was formed, we must go behind the scenes and examine the key players in the room.  The National Security Council was established by the National Security Act of 1947 and placed in the Executive Office of the President in 1949.  Key principals include National Security Advisor General James L. Jones, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Immanuel, Special Counsel to the President David Axelrod, Assistant to the President for Economic Policy Lawrence Summers, Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget Peter Orszag.

This is quite a group of powerful personalities that all have to be reined in by the NSA.  According to Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, “a lot will depend on whether all of these really strong personalities Obama has assembled for Afghanistan can find a workable modus operandi.” He adds, “Good personal chemistry between Bush, Petraeus, and Crocker was much more important to success than any bureaucratic wiring diagram.” (Kitfield) But there are also a couple of personalities present in spirit that cannot be ignored.  While the NSC has evolved over time, the role of the NSA derives significant impact from two previous personalities, McGeorge Bundy (NSA to Johnson during Vietnam) and Brent Scowcroft (NSA to Bush I).

Bundy’s ego and personality were key determinants in how he ran the NSC during Johnson.  Bundy was “happy to be the smartest kid on the block.” (Destler, FPC Briefing)  He also was ambitious and wanted to be at the top.  He saw himself as more important than most, so much so that he moved his office from the Eisenhower Building to the White House.  He also organized all of the Council members into a reporting structure that reported only through him to the President, allowing him to personally frame policy suggestions, which he often did. Bundy based his NSA role around the two principles of an organized policy structure and an immediate proximity to the President.  He is even quoted as saying “I had to be one minute away from the President, not five minutes away if I was to do this job.” (Destler, FPC Briefing)

Another prominent figure that injects their personality in the NSA role under President George H.W. Bush is NSA Brent Scowcroft.  He added the principle of creating a sense of trust.  This, along with order and proximity, became the three tenets of how to be a National Security Advisor.  Every person who has held the position since still follows these three principles.  Scowcroft is known for saying that “the national security advisor should be seldom heard and should be seen even less. It is, I think, best – the job is best performed as an inside job. And if the national security advisor is seen as competing for the public limelight with other members of the administration, particularly the Secretary of State, this usually creates serious problems.” (Destler, FPC Briefing)

With all of these powerful personalities, which ones have clear influence?  How strong is the National Security Advisor in the mix? How does Vietnam fit?  First eliminate Geithner, Summers, and Orszag.  While they may be interested in the costs, they have little to no military knowledge to bring to the table.  They were also too young for the 1969 draft.  Immanuel, Axelrod, and Holder can also be eliminated, given their backgrounds and youth. Gates, a hold-over from the Bush Administration, served in the intelligence community at the time of Vietnam (CIA).  Blair graduated the U.S. Naval Academy in 1968, but did not serve in Vietnam. He also has a penchant for breaking the rules and has his new obsession of consolidating intelligence, even fighting with Panetta in the CIA over who answers to whom.  In a humorous side note, he is famous for trying to “water ski behind a Navy destroyer while commanding [his] ship in Japan.” (NYT, Blair)   All of these can safely be eliminated as top players in the Afghanistan policy process.   This leaves Biden, Clinton, Mullen, Jones and Obama.

Of these remaining five members, only two have direct on-the-ground experience in Vietnam – National Security Advisor General Jim Jones and Chairman JCOS Admiral Mike Mullen.  Biden used five student deferments during the Vietnam draft. Clinton, as a female, was not included in the draft.  Upon closer scrutiny of the address at West Point on December 1, four top personalities, and their agendas, emerge.  The three point strategy outlined by Obama includes: 1) the need for military effort to create conditions for transition, 2) a civilian surge for positive action in Afghanistan, and 3) the construction of a more effective partnership with Pakistan.   These are also representative of the three levers of George Kennan’s strategy of containment – military, economic and diplomatic levers.

Obama addressed the need to make investments in the economic structure of Afghanistan.  This includes creating new businesses and jobs to create better quality of life, as well as major investment in agriculture to promote growth that would help self-sustain their security.  These types of social programs sound like Johnson’s olive branch to North Vietnam, where he offered to invest in a ‘TVA’ program much like he started in the Great Society.  However, there is another influence here.  He also makes specific reference to Eisenhower when he says he is mindful of “the need to maintain balance in and among social programs”.  Obama also evokes the theory of ‘ends and means’, acknowledging what Johnson learned the hard way during Vietnam – that there is a “connection between national security and our economy.”  (Obama, West Point Speech)

The military strategy definitely reflects lessons learned from Vietnam.  Vietnam proved that slow and steady escalation does not work.  Vietnam also teaches that having no exit strategy can be tragic.  However, that has been the case for U.S. troop levels from 2001-2008 in Afghanistan.  According to Obama, the new strategy seeks to insert troops “at the fastest pace possible”, with a clear endpoint defined.  All troops will begin exiting the country in 2011.  This reflects the military view held early in Vietnam that only swift insertion with all troops necessary can garner a quick and decisive victory.  (Obama, West Point Speech)

With one part Johnson, one part Eisenhower, and one part Vietnam lessons learned, which personalities in the room are representative of each part of this recipe?  It might be easy to assume that Obama represents the Johnson personality, concerned with social issues, economic and civilian programs and peace.  However, it is actually Biden.  Although he has extensive foreign affairs committee experience in Congress, he has always been concerned with social programs and known for his blue-collar support.  The economic and social aspects of the strategy fit his personality focus.  Obama actually represents the Kennedy mindset. He wants diverse opinions to emerge from his ‘team of rivals’.  His management style and the style of Jones mesh in this regard.

It is Jones who represents the Eisenhower perspective.  The military aspect is reflective of Eisenhower strategy.  If Al Qaeda is the target, why build up in Afghanistan?  Why not go to Pakistan.  There are nuances of “domino theory” at play.  In his recent speech, Obama floats the notion that if Afghanistan is not stabilized, then Pakistan could further weaken and fall. This occurrence is even more problematic given the nuclear capabilities of Pakistan.  The idea of asymmetrical deployment of to Afghanistan to prevent the fall of Pakistan reflects the very style of Eisenhower.

Clinton’s influence is obviously borne out in the diplomatic initiative announced in the new strategy.  Obama announced the need to establish a new and productive partnership with Pakistan.  This includes shoring up their military and protecting their nuclear capabilities from falling into terrorist hands.  Stabilizing Pakistan through diplomacy is one facet that has Clinton’s name written all over it.  In addition, Clinton is known to have a very close relationship with the military, especially Jones.  This is reflected clearly in an interview for Spiegel Online.  “I believe we will not solve the problem with troops alone,” said Jones. (Jones, Spiegel Online) Her influence on Jones must have been successful.

And where do the direct lessons of Vietnam come into play?  It falls squarely on the military background of Jones.  He is the oldest and most experienced in the room.  Serving in the Marine Corps since 1967, he served a tour in Vietnam.  Since then, he has moved up steadily through the ranks with stints at various bases across the country.  Another key involvement for Jones is with NATO.  Jones was also the commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe.  Appointed National Security Advisor this year by President Obama, he is working to efficiently reorganize and structure the NSC.  However, he has been criticized for his hands off approach to the policymaking structure. Many experts contend that “for the NSC and its staff to be effective and influential, the national security assistant, the head of that staff, has to have a strong relationship with the President such that much – most of the foreign policy business flows through him or at least he is engaged in – deeply engaged in that business.” (Destler, FPC Briefing)

However, Jones does not sit back on this strategy.  In his recent remarks to the 45th Munich Conference on Security Policy, Jones outlines exactly what Obama expects of him.  “The President has made clear that to succeed against 21st century challenges, the United States must use, balance, and integrate all elements of national influence: our military and our diplomacy, our economy and our intelligence, and law enforcement capacity, our cultural outreach, and as was mentioned yesterday, the power of our moral example, in short, our values.” (Jones, Munich Speech)  The final product reflects all of these points. Each and every one of the points mentioned at Munich was included in Obama’s recent strategy announcement.

His influence is significant, especially for the military lever.  He brings the military view of a large, quick and decisive action for victory.  The new strategy shifts us away from dependence on airpower and technology alone.  It also promotes rapid deployment. There is a clear exit timeline established for the removal of troops.  Admittedly influenced by Kissinger, Jones knows that there must be a way out at some point.  To not define it is to repeat Vietnam.  He also knows that the U.S. cannot go it alone as it did in Vietnam.  Therefore, NATO will play an important part in the new Afghanistan military strategy.  Without question, Jones’ ties to NATO are at work here.  The news that almost 10,000 more troops will be contributed by NATO can be attributed to Jones. As a result, General McChrystal and the military get everything they ask for to get the job done.  He is fully backed by Jones.

Out of the three principles developed by Bundy and Scowcroft (trust, structure, and proximity), “the most important part of the power was proximity, closeness to the president, the fact that this person was a minute away, probably spoke to him more than anybody else in the foreign policy side of the government, and this was enormous, potential power.” (Destler, FPC Briefing)  Many argue that Jones’ desire to restrain his proximity to the President may be counterproductive in the long term.  It is more likely that Jones wants to make room for others to have equal access, recalling the lack of variety in opinion available to Johnson during Vietnam.

Critics, quick to dismiss Jones as “withdrawn” or “disengaged” from Obama, are grossly mistaken. “You can be a leader that takes charge of every meeting and takes charge of every issue and rides it to its conclusion and plays a very, very dominant role,” Jones said. ”For me, that has the effect of muting voices that should be heard.”(Cooper) For Jones, his extensive military background, along with Vietnam service, helps him to put military strategy in perspective.

In addition, his very philosophy of how to operate within his office is influenced by Bundy.  Of his style, Richard Holbrooke commented that Jones is “a Marine and he believes in team-building” which has produced “a sophisticated, multilayer decision structure at the NSC that did not exist before.”(Cooper)  Bundy was highly influential on the initial structure of the NSC.  Yet unlike Bundy, Jones has no need for the limelight and avoids political influences in his decision-making. Jones’ record suggests he is “someone who, unencumbered by strong ideological leanings, can evaluate ideas dispassionately whether they come from left or right,” and, “he is well-respected and likely to possess the skills to navigate the other prestigious and powerful cabinet members.” (Crowley, “Man in the Mirror”)

Jones’ personality is clearly shaped by lessons learned from Vietnam, with additional influence from Bundy, Kissinger and Scowcroft.  His influence plays a direct role on the military lever.  His operational style, along with his ability to maneuver the inner workings of beltway politics, gives him great advantage.  As a result, he is able to manage the powerful personalities of Clinton and Biden, allowing for their influence in the economic and diplomatic aspects of the new strategy.  Back to the beginning, Bundy’s statement in the first paragraph is absolutely accurate.  Personality is the key to understanding the development process involving this new policy.  Obama, Jones, Clinton and Biden are the leading power players in the room.  However, while the President always makes the final decision, it is NSA Jim Jones that is primarily responsible for brokering our new Afghanistan strategy. 


  • Andres, Richard B., Craig Wills, Thomas E. Griffith Jr. Winning with Allies: The Strategic Value of the Afghan Model  International Security, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Winter, 2005/2006), pp. 124-160 Published by: The MIT Press Stable URL:
  • Bai, Matt “Escalations: How Afghanistan might be Vietnam — and Obama the real Kennedy.” New York Times Magazine (2009): 11. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 16 Nov. 2009.
  • Barry, John and Evan Thomas. Obama’s Vietnam Newsweek:  9 Feb. 2009
  • Burke, John P. Honest Broker Role in Foreign-Policy Decision Making: A Reassessment Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Jun., 2005), pp. 229-258 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress Stable URL:
  • Cooper, Helene. “National Security Adviser Takes Less Visible Approach to His Job.” The New York Times (0362-4331), 7 May 2009, p. 10.
  • Crowley, Michael. “Man in the Mirror”. The New Republic: 31 Dec. 2008
  • Destler, I.M. The Role of the National Security Advisor FPC Briefing, 16 Mar. 2009 Foreign Press Center, Washington, DC URL:
  • Gilbert, Marc Jason “Fatal Amnesia: American Nation-Building In Vietnam, Afghanistan And Iraq.” Journal of Third World Studies 21.2 (2004): 13-43. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 19 Nov. 2009.
  • Goldman, Elizabeth “In the Shadow of the Oval Office: From JFK to Bush II; The Presidents’ National Security Advisers.” Library Journal 134.1 (2009): 104. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 1 Nov. 2009.
  • Goldstein, Gordon From Defeat, Lessons in Victory New York Times. New York, N.Y.: 18 Oct. 2009
  • Goldstein, Gordon M. Lessons In Disaster: McGeorge Bundy And the Path to War In Vietnam. Array New York: Times Books/Henry Holt and Co., 2009.
  • Howell, Shea. Another Vietnam Michigan Citizen. Highland Park, Mich.: Oct 25-Oct 31, 2009. Vol. 31, Iss. 50; pg. A1, 2 pgs
  • Inskeep, Steve. Afghanistan Policymakers Look To Vietnam’s Lessons: Interview with Gordon Goldstein National Public Radio: 6 Oct. 2009
  • Interchange: Legacies of the Vietnam War. Journal of American History 93.2 (2006): 452-490. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 16 Nov. 2009.
  • Jentleson, Bruce W. The Pretty Prudent Public: Post Post-Vietnam American Opinion on the Use of Military Force  International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Mar., 1992), pp. 49-73 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The International Studies Association Stable URL:
  • Jones, James L. Press Briefing On The President’s Meetings With President Karzai Of Afghanistan And President Zardari Of Pakistan White House, Washington, D.C.: 6 May 2009
  • Jones, James L. Remarks by National Security Advisor Jones at 45th Munich Conference on Security Policy Council on Foreign Relations. Munich, Germany: 8 Feb. 2009
  • Kitfield, James “Can the national security bureaucracy carry out an ambitious Afghanistan strategy?” National Journal (2009): 13. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 16 Nov. 2009.
  • McChrystal, Gen. Stanley. Commander’s Initial United States Forces – Afghanistan (USFOR-A) Assessment 30 Aug. 2009
  • Obama, President Barack. West Point Speech on New Afghanistan Strategy: 1 December 2009
  • People – Blair, Dennis C. New York Times. New York, N.Y.: 9 June 2009
  • Seib, Gerald F. The Afghanistan Scenario — CAPITAL JOURNAL: Memories of Vietnam Haunt War, but Scarcely Apply Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: 24 Oct. 2009. pg. A.8
  • Sorley, Lewis. The Vietnam War We Ignore New York Times. New York, N.Y.: 18 Oct. 2009
  • Spiegel Online. US National Security Adviser James Jones Skeptical about Troop Request. 7 Nov 2009,1518,659903,00.html