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Opinion

Don't rush the Afghan debate

History shows that if Washington acts too quickly, it could get it wrong –and hurt relations with the US military.

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As a senior administration official recalled: "The numbers came in high. No one said yes, no one said no; it was taken off the table.... a complete eye-roller." Consequently, and perhaps making a decision too quickly, President Clinton made the strategic mistake of ruling out using any US ground forces in Kosovo on the eve of NATO's 79-day bombing campaign.

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Finally, in 2002, also testifying before the Senate, Gen. Eric Shinseki offered his famous "several hundred thousand soldiers" response to a question asking for a range of the required forces needed to successfully occupy Iraq.

While many remember that Paul Wolfowitz, the second-ranking Pentagon civilian, decried the Army Chief of Staff's estimate as being "wildly off the mark," the graver effect was the implied message transmitted throughout the ranks that challenging senior civilian officials' planning assumptions could be career suicide.

Civilian officials tend to be wary of military requirements that would be political suicide to consider, yet military officials tend to consider mostly the higher estimates as necessary for force protection and to help ensure success on the battlefield.

The problem is that when civilians assume that military officials are biased they will be skeptical about the soundness of military options offered in the future. Military officials, meanwhile, all too often disregard civilian notions of what military force can accomplish as unreasonable, unnecessarily risky, or logistically impossible. This dichotomy presents frequent difficulty in forging a civil-military consensus.

What is needed to bridge the strategic gap is an extended series of debates – around regionally based strategies, operational plans, and appropriate resources.

Thankfully, that's what Obama seems to be doing. As the last important step in this process – both for the substance debated and symbolism it conveys to the civilian bureaucracy and uniformed ranks – Obama will meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff today in the White House to discuss Afghanistan.

The open-ended war in Afghanistan carried an immense burden: More than 900 US troops have died, and each month the US government spends $3.6 billion of taxpayer money. A decision that does not take into account multiple views, or a hasty one, could be wrong and needlessly expensive.

It would be unwise to short-circuit the ongoing White House review, which should conclude when the commander in chief has heard from his relevant senior civilian and military advisers and decided on a way ahead, not with the stop-watch running.

To be sure, Obama shouldn't take many more months to make his decision, but his administration must take the time to get it right – both to best assure the correct strategy, and for the future of America's civil-military relations.

Micah Zenko is a fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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