THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

McChrystal's "Confidence Job" on Carl Levin and Al Franken

Senator Carl Levin, just back from a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan which he took with Senator Al Franken, sees significant gains in America's position in Afghanistan.

But how can that be?

The only substantive differences between the highly bleak assessments of the Afghan scene in leaked reports authored by Commanding General Stanley McChrystal and US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry on the one hand and Senator Levin's very rosy assessment of progress offered this week are Barack Obama's West Point speech and the deployment of a 1500 person Marine infantry unit and approximately 500 or so other troops from other corners of the DoD.

On Wednesday, January 13th, Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman Carl Levin held a media conference call from the Dubai International Airport. It was about 10:30 at night for him -- and the Committee Chairman walked us through his general impressions of things in Afghanistan. He didn't speak for Senator Al Franken, who was not to the best of my knowledge on the call.

Levin reported that he and Franken had spent three days in the region -- the first day in Pakistan followed by two days in Afghanistan. He said that they had met with General Stanley McChrystal, General William Caldwell and General David Rodriquez -- who was the operations commander on the ground, according to Levin.

Levin said "we went to places away from Kabul today. We saw real partnering with Afghans." He continued, "it's reassuring to see that happening...."

Senator Levin stated that he was in Afghanistan last September and that, compared to then, he had seen "a significant increase in optimism about possibility of success in Afghanistan."

He did add that the situation is "still very complicated, still far from certainty of success."

He said that the confidence level of our leaders in the region and of Afghan leaders that we are "making progress" is higher today.

Levin continued, "Our counterinsurgency strategy may be taking hold. We are offering terms of security better than the false security offered by the Taliban."

Senator Levin said that key to success of our current strategy is that there is close partnering or coalition troops and the Afghan army. Levin said that he believes that Afghans need to step up and take responsibility for their own security if this effort is going to succeed -- and he saw evidence of that happening.

Levin emphasized the critical task of training Afghan troops, and that there are not enough trainers there to deal with the growing numbers of Afghan recruits.

General Caldwell reported to Levin that President Obama's West Point speech and the mention of July 2011 as a drawdown point when a reduction in US forces would begin, had a "very positive effect on the Afghan leadership." He said that after that speech, the Afghan political and military leadership was focusing its energies on building a larger base of recruits for their armies. Caldwell, according to Levin, reported that the "numbers of recruits were stunning" in the aftermath of Obama setting the July 2011 date.

Caldwell also said that they couldn't handle the surge of recruits in the days after Obama's speech.

According to Levin regarding the large surge in recruits, "the reason that that happened was that Afghan leaders realized that President Obama was serious and meant business -- that commitment here [in Afghanistan] is not open ended and that we would be decreasing troops in July 2011."

According to Levin, the only shortfall in the area of partnering is not the lack of American combat troops to partner with Afghans in the field, but rather the number of trainers. He said that there are "more than enough troops to handle the true shoulder to shoulder partnering." He continued, "What we learned, to our dismay, is that in the early training, during the first eight weeks, in the preliminary kind of skills given to recruits -- there is a significant short fall in personnel to train."

Levin reported that we have only 37% of the trainers that we need. He said that ISAF coalition partners should really step up to plate and offer more trainers, particularly the partners who are not sending combat troops.

AFTER SENATOR LEVIN'S OPENING REMARKS, I asked him how his rather positive assessment could be true.

What accounted for the dramatic change in circumstances between Senator Levin's quite bright portrayal of trends in Afghanistan -- as offered in part to them by General Stanley McChrystal's tour guides -- and McChrystal's own quite bleak read just a few months ago?

I noted that there had been virtually no new troop increases yet and that the only thing that had really happened was President Obama's West Point declaration of his new AfPak strategy.

Levin stated that there had been some increase in troops, and he was correct. I called the Department of Defense and learned that a 1,500 person Marine Infantry unit had deployed shortly after the President's speech and that about 500 others from "here and there" had gone in by this point. About 1,000 more are expected over the next month, according to Department of Defense sources.

But even then, having 2,000 of the 40,000 troops requested and the 30,000 agreed to by Obama could not be enough to swing "hope" and "security deliverables" so dramatically -- unless increased troops are actually irrelevant to the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan.

In response to my question, Senator Levin did state that he opposed the deployment of more combat troops to Afghanistan and felt that they were not necessary.

But he continued that what seemed important to the Afghan leadership was Obama showing a commitment to Afghanistan. He reiterated again that he would not have sent more combat troops, that there are "a number of ways of showing commitment -- better equipment, etc." He said that the best way to demonstrate commitment was to "show Afghans that the security they crave can be provided by their own security services."

Levin repeated himself yet again that he would have done things differently than the President but "that commitment was important to be made -- had an impact positively on the Afghan people."

Levin essentially said that this is about confidence -- building confidence of the Afghan citizenry in their own government and military and security services, and regardless of the US troops committee, what Obama had kickstarted was the beginning of that rebuilt confidence.

I respect Senator Levin for sharing his thoughts and for frequently showing great leadership in matters of national security policy, but he must scratch his own head, as I am, wondering if that this is all about confidence building (con game or not?), how could the picture he was presented by the McChrystal-Caldwell-Rodriguez team on this trip be so at odds with the picture they painted during the President's strategic review process?

It can't all be about an Obama-led "confidence multiplier."

If it is, then the question really is why not stick with the oratory and current levels of deployment and forego the 30,000 additional troops and extra $33 billion a year price tag?

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons